An Elephant Named Chai

photograph by San Francisco Chronicle

photograph by San Francisco Chronicle

Chai died yesterday, less than a year after being moved to the Oklahoma zoo from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.  This excerpt from my book is a memorial in words of her life:

 

In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I met a female Asian elephant named Chai at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour – allowed into the elephant enclosure, but safely separated from the elephants by strong metal bars. One by one, the elephants were brought forward by their handler and we fed them carrots.

Chai was carefully interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch. I saw her mind at work: What animal is this? My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in leather. Sniff. Squeeze. And who are you?

Trunk-length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.

She was close enough she could hear our hearts beat, a frequency audible to elephants. Her large ears flared, listening not to the wind that blew from our mouths, but to the music of our bodies. She rumbled.

We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice deep and loud. She was mesmerized, motionless, trying to understand our oscillating meaning. Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves. The sounds of an unknown world pulsated just below our range of hearing.

She stretched her trunk to accept a carrot we offered, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another. When her cheeks were as full as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her with an ankus, an elephant hook, alternately above each knee. She backed up as slowly as she had taken carrots, swinging her head from side to side.

In 1980, when Chai was only a year old and not yet weaned, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand. Only sixteen when I met her, at the age of eighteen she was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx. By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.

After three days and 2,1000 miles in a truck, Chai arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo. On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands. (The zoo was later fined $5000.) Chai lost 1,000 pounds during the twelve months she was in Missouri.

Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle. Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf. The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries. The Thai name selected, Hansa, means “Extreme Happiness.” Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled.

photograph by the Seattle Times

photograph by the Seattle Times

In June of 2007 Hansa died of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that has claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in captivity. Since then, Chai has been artificially inseminated a total of 112 times, resulting in the miscarriage of one other calf.

Day after day, from the time she was just a year old, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human heartbeats. She listens to loud unknowable noises beyond her bars and moves slowly back and forth in her cage. Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness. Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.

photograph by the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo

photograph by the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo

6 responses

  1. Oh Cheryl. Your writing brings tears to my eyes. I eagerly await the day that animals such as these are no longer allowed in captivity. My heart goes out to Chai, and I’m grateful that you shared your experience.

  2. Again, I my heart has been pulled out of my chest. I am glad you knew Chai and grateful you can honour her memory. Anyone who thinks a life in captivity is a good for these precious beings will feel deeply ashamed when they read your memorial of her life.

    1. Margi, I only met Chai that once, but she taught me about the intelligence of elephants so I could observe them differently in the wild. Grateful she and I shared that bright moment together. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Thank you for sharing Chai’s story, Cheryl. I am fascinated by elephants and their behaviour. I didn’t know they tuned in to human heart beats. I am so angry that she was beaten and cannot believe the zoo was fined a mere 5000 dollars! Your writing is a wonderful tribute to Chai 😊

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

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