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Never Forget: The Sad Lives and Deaths of Chico, Peaches, Wankie and Tatima

August 3rd, 2011 by Nicole Meyer

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On July 10, Chico, the oldest bull elephant in captivity in North America died in the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas. Information is exceedingly sparse: Like so many other elephants in zoos, he was “found unresponsive” in the morning when keepers arrived for work. No one knows how long he had been down or what he went through before they arrived and euthanized him. He was only 46. Chico’s death marks the end of a tragic and disgraceful chapter in captive elephant history, but one that is in constant danger of being repeated.

In 2003, Chico was one of four elephants living at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now called San Diego Zoo Safari Park). He, along with females Peaches, Wankie and Tatima, had been there for around three decades. Though all originally had been taken from the wild.

Between the four elephants, they had managed to produce five calves for the zoo; two died within a month of birth, and the three that survive to this day were wrenched from their mothers at the ages of one and two years, and shipped to other zoos. Moja is in the Pittsburg Zoo, and Tavi and her half-brother Tsavo remain the only two African elephants at the Canton Zoo in China.

In 2001, San Diego joined forces with the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida to import eleven young, wild-born elephants that were captured at the zoos’ request. They were part of a group of 37 cull orphans and their offspring who had been relocated to Swaziland and were living as established herds in protected parks there – the entirety of Swaziland’s small elephant population at the time. International elephant trade by zoos had been suspended for a decade when San Diego first contacted Swaziland authorities to arrange for the shipment of these elephants.

Despite the best efforts of IDA and the Coalition to Save Wild Elephants, the young Swaziland elephants were brought to the zoos in 2003, but not before San Diego had moved its four long-term resident elephants Chico, Peaches, Wankie and Tatima out to make room for them. Already ailing, Peaches, Wankie and Tatima were shipped out of sunny San Diego and into Chicago’s frigid winters at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The three elephants did not last even two years there. Tatima died in October 2004; like Chico she was found collapsed on the floor when the keepers arrived in the morning. Cause of death was infection with a bacterium similar to tuberculosis (Mycobacterium szulgai). Peaches followed only three months later, purportedly due to “old age.” She was 55; African elephants can live to be 65.

During the ensuing uproar by elephant welfare advocates, Wankie was secretly loaded onto a truck during the last chilly night of April 2005 and shipped to the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, despite the fact she was recovering from colic (a painful condition that can cause an elephant to collapse). She was found kneeling in the truck, a potentially dangerous situation, somewhere around the midway point of the 22-hour trip, with temps in 20 to 30 degree range and no heat. After one more stop, the decision to continue driving sealed her fate, and she was euthanized upon arrival at the zoo. A final report showed that Wankie died of the same bacterial lung infection that killed Tatima, and that the infection coupled with “stress of shipping” may have caused her collapse.

All these elephants – Chico, Peaches, Tatima and Wankie – were victims of a zoo industry that values female elephants over males, babies over adults, and, always, money over the animals that they claim to care for. Their story should never be forgotten. Nor can we let our guard down when it comes to the capture of wild elephants for the purpose of restocking zoos – a practice that continues today.

Check back for IDA’s blog on the recent import of African elephants to the Pittsburgh Zoo’s breeding center, and how the public never had a clue!

Join IDA’s Elephant Task Force to find out what you can do to help elephants!