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Last Elephant in Town Faces Heartbreak
By William Mullen on ChicagoTribune.com
When she came to live at Brookfield Zoo in 1984, Christy was 4 years old and a 1,000-pound waif who had been living in a suburban garage with another juvenile elephant.
From the moment she walked into the zoo’s pachyderm house, she found a loving stepmother in Affie, one of the zoo’s adult females. Extremely social and family-centered like the rest of their species, the two elephants became nearly inseparable buddies for 25 years.
Tragically, that relationship was severed last week when Affie died, leaving Christy as the only remaining elephant in a Chicago zoo and her keepers anxious to find her a new pal as fast as possible.
Christy (right) tries to get a piece of pumpkin away from Affie in October 2008.
(File handout photo/Brookfield Zoo)
Within hours, zoo officials had taken steps to bring another elephant to Brookfield in the next few months. The move was in keeping with their plan to expand the educational exposure to elephants despite concerns raised in recent years about the limited habitat at zoos for the world’s largest land mammal.
For the time being, Christy gets a lot of extra attention from zoo staffers. She is also out of view and indoors in the zoo pachyderm house, giving her a few quiet days to recover from the death of Affie, 39.
“She is working through it, she is doing OK,” said Kim Smith, the zoo’s vice president of animal care.
Christy could be back on display next week if the zoo completes its renovation of an outdoor elephant yard. Since the fall, the area has nearly doubled in size and will have amenities such as a mud wallow, sand mounds to climb, and soft sand and clay substrate to walk on.
The zoo’s records show Christy was born in the wild in South Africa in 1980 and captured in 1982, but not by whom. Christy and a 2,200-pound juvenile male elephant somehow ended up with an unidentified private owner in the west suburbs. The owner, according to zoo records, asked Brookfield to take the two because he “decided he could no longer house [them] in his garage.”
Keepers picked them up Dec. 7, 1984, and the male was soon transferred. As the keeper escorted Christy to the pachyderm house, Smith said, an emotional bond between Christy and Affie formed “the moment they saw each other.”
“It was an instant mother-daughter relationship.”
The two spent much of their time together, Smith said, with Affie always standing protectively over Christy as the youngster grew up. When Christy reached adulthood, their relationship was more sisterly.
Affie, who would have turned 40 next month, was geriatric by elephant standards but had shown no serious health problems. When her day keepers arrived at 8 a.m. last Friday, they found her on her side, unable to get to her feet.
“Christy was standing over her,” Smith said. “When one of the keepers reached between the bars to touch Affie, Christy stepped back. It was like, ‘OK, you are here now, let’s see what is going on.’”
As the vets worked frantically, the keeper who had picked up Christy from the suburban garage 25 years ago knelt in front of the ailing Affie, putting his hands on her face and pleading with her.
“Affie,” the keeper told the downed animal, according to Smith, “you’ve got to help us. Please try to stand. We’re trying to help you.”
Christy watched as Affie slipped away. Afterward Christy was let back into the enclosure to be with the body for about an hour.
Within an hour of Affie’s death, Smith was on the phone to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s elephant taxonomy group, which controls the placement of elephants in the association’s zoos.
Affie was the sixth-oldest African elephant in an accredited North American zoo, and the cause of her death has not been determined yet. If tests don’t reveal a larger disease issue, Smith said Brookfield would like the zoo association to find a suitable female elephant to become a new companion for Christy.
“It is our top priority,” said Smith. “These are not solitary animals.”
Zoos in recent years have come under criticism from animal-rights groups that say elephants, which are so large and naturally roam such great distances in the wild, should not be kept in zoos at all.
This week one group, In Defense of Animals, called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees zoos, to investigate Affie’s death, asserting the “high probability” that it was “caused by inadequate zoo conditions.”
The death of three older female elephants at Lincoln Park Zoo in less than a year in 2004 and 2005 set off a nationwide firestorm over keeping elephants in northern climates like Chicago’s. A few zoos, including Lincoln Park, closed their elephant exhibits at least until long-term studies can be completed.
Others, like Brookfield, set themselves on a course to make an even larger commitment to keeping elephants. Brookfield’s director, Stuart Strahl, said the zoo’s long-range plan is to keep eight elephants, including a male for breeding.
Take action: Urge Brookfield Zoo to Send Lone Elephant to a Sanctuary and Shut Down Elephant Exhibit.
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