By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - An Asian elephant that was moved from Seattle to an Oklahoma zoo died over the weekend, renewing debate over whether 37-year-old Chai should have been retired to a California wildlife sanctuary instead.
The Oklahoma City Zoo is conducting a necropsy on Chai, who arrived in May from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo along with 48-year-old female elephant Bamboo. The elephants were moved because the Seattle zoo was closing its elephant exhibit.
"Our hearts are broken," said Tara Henson, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City Zoo. "There were no clinical signs of health issues with Chai."
Chai is the second elephant to die at the Oklahoma Zoo in the last four months. In October, a 4-year-old Asian elephant named Malee died of a viral infection.
Asian elephants, an endangered species, can live up to 60 years in the wild, according to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, which wanted the elephants to go to a sanctuary, posted on Facebook: “Chai's death has highlighted the growing nationwide concern about keeping and breeding elephants in zoo captivity.”
Over the last few years animal-rights groups have pushed for elephants to be kept in sanctuaries with large areas to roam and more social interaction than typically available in zoos. Groups have filed lawsuits in several states to move elephants to sanctuaries or block zoos from importing them.
The Oklahoma City Zoo was chosen for its breeding program, multigenerational herd and staff expertise, the Seattle zoo said. The wildlife sanctuary in California also has Asian and African elephants, as well as hundreds of acres of varied natural terrain and a warmer climate.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)