A news blog for Seattle's Phinney Ridge and Greenwood neighborhoods


Zoo artificially inseminates 32-year-old Asian elephant Chai

March 14th, 2011 · Comments

Last weekend, elephant management and animal health staff at Woodland Park Zoo artificially inseminated 32-year-old Asian elephant Chai.

Dr. Dennis Schmitt (standing, in maroon shirt), a leading expert in elephant reproductive physiology, helped the zoo’s elephant management and animal health staff artificially inseminate Chai. Photo by Dennis Dow, courtesy Woodland Park Zoo.

From the press release:

“The world’s leading experts on elephant health and breeding, including the Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan, recommend that we breed Chai again, by artificial insemination,” explained Dr. Nancy Hawkes, the zoo’s General Curator and resident expert in elephant reproductive physiology. “A baby would be socially enriching not only for Chai, but for the herd. A successful pregnancy and birth would help us begin to re-build a multigenerational social group here at the zoo.”

A 12-year-old bull at Albuquerque Biological Park Zoo contributed the semen. With no offspring to date, he is genetically valuable to the North American population of elephants.

The gestation period for elephants is 22 months. It will be approximately 15 to 16 weeks before the zoo can confirm a pregnancy by ultrasound and through hormonal changes in Chai. If she is pregnant, her due date will be in early 2013. The last artificial insemination procedure on Chai was done last year in June. It did not result in a pregnancy.

Only 30,000-50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, scattered across fragmented habitats in 13 Asian countries. The greatest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss, which inevitably results in conflicts with farmers, villagers and plantation owners, resulting in human casualties and elephant deaths. Human-elephant conflict is the most widespread and difficult issue to tackle for elephants in Asia. Saving elephants requires a network of key players, including AZA zoos, conservation non-governmental organizations, government and international agencies, businesses, and range country elephant experts to collaborate and strategically work together.

Chai previously gave birth to a female, Hansa, in 2000. Hansa died suddenly 6-1/2 years later from a newly discovered elephant herpesvirus.

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  1. Meredith says:

    WPZ’s breeding program has nothing to do with elephant conservation and, since its African elephant Watoto is infected with the same herpesvirus that killed Hansa, any Asian calf born at the zoo will likely get sick and die just as Hansa did.

    I fail to see the rationality of deliberately exposing another susceptible calf to this extremely deadly virus other than the zoo’s completely self-serving desire to to breed elephants in a desperate attempt to reverse the zoo system’s declining elephant population. Of course, the reason it’s is because they are kept in severe confinement their whole lives in spatially inadequate and deprived exhibits that ignore the an elephant’s nature. They are also often brutally treated with beatings and prolonged chaining. Approximately three of every four Asian calves being born die before their tenth birthday and African calves have a equally low survival rate in zoos. Zoos need to stop perpetrating their lies about this failed program and get out of the elephant-keeping business before more innocent calves die the same way Hansa died.

  2. john walker says:

    gotta agree with you.

  3. RR says:

    Ditto. This feels wrong to me.

  4. alyne16 says:

    Chai’s life: Woodland Park Zoo took Chai from her mother at 1 year old when she should have nursed another 4 years and lived with her mother her entire life. Beaten at Dickerson Park Zoo when she was sent there to breed and likely at WPZ as well. She is living a life deprived of space, companionship, and stimulation in a quarter of a century old display. Now, a 60th artificial insemination? Chai’s repetitive neurotic behavior says it all. Shameful.

  5. Megan the Vegan says:


  6. bernice says:

    Megan the Vegan – just go away with your ridiculous and unproductive comments. I agree with what others have said. Amongst other reasons why this is so wrong – why bring another calve into an unhealthy situation for it? It’s simple – elephants, especially calves, bring in money for zoos. As a former long time volunteer (20 plus years), I saw this zoo go from being animal and conservation oriented to one that only thinks of money as the bottom line. Particularly since it went private. It makes me very sad.

  7. Janet_Reyes says:

    Woodland Park Zoo, just exactly how many failed attempts do you need before you cease this barbaric practice? Isn’t 59 failures enough? The one and only success you had (if you can call it a success) ended in a slow and agonizing death for the baby, Hansa, from the herpes virus carried by at least one of your other elephants. Any new calf will be exposed to, and likely contract, that same virus. Have you no compassion at all for these magnificent creatures? You are supposed to be their guardian and caretaker, not their Dr. Mengele. You should start behaving in the best interests of the elephants and stop this sadistic experimentation. Your practices are cruel and inhumane. I’m ashamed and disgusted by your behavior.

  8. Elaine says:

    Poor old girl. Give her a break guys !

  9. Mike K says:

    This is sick. I see no purpose to inseminating Chai. Better yet, if we KNOW that Chai carries the herpes virus and can pass it to her baby…what logic is telling these people to move forward with the project? The zoo needs to release the elephants along with the other animals, close down and find something better to do with the land. It’s nothing short of a jail for animals.

  10. Claudine Erlandson says:

    NOT AGAIN when it should be NEVER AGAIN!
    How can the zoo’s board of directors allow such a thing to happen again? Poor poor Chai! I do hope she does not get pregnant and loose her baby again, like little Hansa did from herpes virus still lurking at WPZ . Enough is enough, stop this madness and sadness!

  11. Barbara says:

    As a professional writer for years who has covered animal-based issues, I’d really like to know specifically who “The world’s leading experts on elephant health and breeding” are that would recommend propagating stock with incurable, communicable diseases.

    This has to be a decision based solely on short-term financial gain, because it amounts to animal cruelty, and it certainly does not contribute anything of value to species conservation.

    I’d suggest this reporter follow up by tracking down these so-called experts.

  12. Shelly says:

    Disgusting. There is no excuse for this. Hasn’t Chai been through enough?? The zoo’s profits should never take precedence over the well being of the animals, but once again, the zoo shows its stripes. The Elephant Sanctuary (www.elephants.com) has offered to take all 3 girls at no cost. It’s time for the zoo to finally do the right thing.

  13. Lisa C says:

    For the WPZ to say that they are doing this in the name of conservation is a sham. It’s PR and it’s for the wrong reasons. Attempting another insemination with the herpes virus present at WPZ is negligent and an outrage.

    WPZ should be a true leader in conservation of elephants and embark on a virtual elephant exhibit showing actual elephants in their wild surroundings. People could see elephants be elephants and would be supporting and protecting their wild spaces. WPZ should talk to some of the real experts on elephants like Joyce Poole. If zoos are truly interested in education and conservation this is the only way.

    And, yes, WPZ should release the 3 elephants to TES.

  14. Nancy Pennington says:

    WPZ: are you following these comments? No one is buying into your “conservation” nonsense. Your actions are unconscionable, cruel and unethical. You KNEW the likelihood of Chai’s calf, Hansa contacting EEHF (and the probability of her death within 10 years) but chose to risk it – as you are with your continual attempts to force another doomed baby from poor Chai, who has suffered much more than enough!

  15. Leave her alone! says:

    Enough already. I hope she does not get pregnant. Please WPZ, send them all to the Elephant Sanctuary where they can be a bit more free. Please do what is right for them and stop pretending this is benefiting humans.

  16. ANA ELENA says:


  17. Parker says:

    I think the zoo administrators and board should be charged with animal cruelty. To deliberately play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent baby elephants makes me wonder if some folks at the zoo are suffering from an anti-social personality disorder. They used to be called sociopaths. Conscienceless, remorseless, lacking in empathy or compassion for others, they think only of themselves and can cause an incredible amount of damage if they are allowed to. Very dangerous “people.” The poor, innocent elephants at WPZ must be saved from these people.

  18. Stupid Hippie says:

    No means no! Even for a pachyderm!

  19. Whopper says:

    How does an elephant get herpes?

  20. Franky says:

    Guys…. lets not get involved with the women bitching about the elephants.
    The zoo elephants are pampered compared to living in the wild, the circus, or even “the sanctuary.”
    Not one of these women have ever visited the “elephant sanctuary.” All they know is the one sided propaganda they’ve read and they need to spout off about something.
    I attended one of their meetings…. 26 women and three men of questionable status.
    The zoo knows best…. it’s run by a real woman.

  21. The only reason the zoo keeps attempting to impregnat Chai is for profit. The zoo’s visitors will increase to see a newborn. In the meantime, Chai has suffered many miscarriages & an infant elephant has suffered & died from Herpes. Elephants are very emotional & Chai suffers every time the pregnancy does not succeed. Send her to a reputable sactuary & allow her to live the remainder of her life in peace with other elephants

  22. Linda says:

    So are all the miscarriages that Chai suffered in the past enriching for her? I think the only enrichment for the zoo is the money a new baby would make even if it only lived 6 1/2 years because it caught a deadly form of herpes from one of the other elephants at WPZ where there is no disease control, and then died a very painful death. All of these inseminations done on Chai are so invasive and so selfish, not once has her best interest been considered. If her best interests would ever be considered she would be retired to an elephant sanctuary, not kept in a barn with cement floors 7 moths out of the year

  23. Megan the Vegan says:

    “Chai is for profit”

    Yes, because every smart person knows, WPZ is rolling in money.

  24. Whopper says:

    What I want to know is how the zoo got such slutty elephants.

  25. Whopper says:

    “Elephants are very emotional & Chai suffers every time the pregnancy does not succeed”

    So you speak elephant?

  26. PhinneyNeighbor says:

    The zoo is a non-profit. Whatever their motivations, it isn’t profit. The money they make goes to services for the animals on ground, maintenance of the grounds, paying staff and conservation programs.

    Also, Chai isn’t confined to the barn 7 months of the year. She has access to the yard and uses it often. She has been out every time I have been by recently and has also been out early in the morning when my dog and I walk the path behind the zoo.

  27. Carol B says:

    Even the zoo director admits the elephants are locked up in the barn for long periods of time. Keepers have told visitors that they are locked up at about 3:30 pm and the keepers don’t come back on duty until about 8 the next morning. That would be about 17 hours straight locked up and they also said they are locked up in fall and winter if they expect the temperature to go down to 40. That would be over 7 months of the year.

    The whole point of why Chai shouldn’t be inseminated is that her calf will be exposed to the same virus that killed Hansa. No one who really cares about these animals would deliberately expose a baby elephant to this deadly disease. Ergo, these people don’t care about the elephants. They are just specimens to them. Woodland Park Zoo is a self-serving corporation masquerading as a non-profit. Debbie Jensen makes $300K per year. She’s very for-profit for herself.

  28. Now! means Now! says:

    Stop the torture! Close Guantanamo on Phinney aka WPZ! Now!

    Free the salamanders too! Now!

  29. Whopper says:

    “Debbie Jensen makes $300K per year”

    For the size of the zoo and budget, and having to deal with loony, emotional animal rights extremists, I’d say she’s underpaid.

  30. Franky says:

    Right On Whopper, I certainly agree with you….. on this thread.
    The anti WPZ elephant Phinney Ridge ladies bleeding heart social group needs to focus on other issues…..
    They have their tit in the wringer and Chai is not even pregnant yet……
    I’m not convinced Chai objects to having a man… or womans arm wiggling around in her you know what, is all that bad.
    It’s crazy… but Chai may like it….. who really knows?
    Who on this thread who speaks asian elephant with a twist? (:-)

  31. Justin says:

    Franky – wow – you are an awesome spokesperson for your point of view.

    Not only does Jensen make an exorbitant salary, other employees of the zoo do as well. Last I knew (a number of years ago), the average full time keeper was making between $20 and $30 an hour, with double to double time and a half for working holidays or on their scheduled days off. Not to mention generous vacation, insurance, and retirement packages. Also, some of the keepers are currently being paid as retirees of the City and are also being paid full time salary by the Zoo Society. They are members of the teamsters union.

    So, for this and other reasons, the zoo basically has to do whatever they can to make as much money as they can, seemingly without much regard for the animals. And these kinds of nonsensical animal husbandry decisions are made for many of the animals, not just the elephants, all in the name of keeping the attention of the public so they keep paying at the gate to visit.


  32. Franky says:

    Thank you Justin.
    I think $20-35 per hour is about right for a well educated zoo keeper.
    Since the zoo was voted off and weaned from most city financial support it must be run like a business to survive and that means just what you wrote…. keeping the public interested so they keep visiting and keep their memberships. One thing I know about business is businesses must change/evolve to survive.

    BTW I’m just a neighbor who enjoys the tranquility of the zoo. And, I contribute when I can.

  33. justin says:

    Franky – “businesses” involving living creatures are unethical unless they keep the well being of those creatures their top concern. WPZ no longer does this unfortunately. And thank you for posting less the mysoginistic comments.

  34. Fordham J says:

    Franky is just another person who thinks only of his own simplistic entertainment and has nary a thought about what the severe zoo confinement means for the animals. In short, he just doesn’t care about the animals and that’s why he likes the zoo folks. Because they don’t care either. Two peas in a pod. They are the kind of people who cause most of the suffering in the world.

  35. justin says:

    Actually, Fordham J, many of the keepers at the zoo care deeply for the animals in their care and do everything they can to give them enriching existences. But they constantly run into roadblocks with the administration in place at this time. Very sad – and I can’t think of a good way to turn things around. If you try to hit the zoo in the pocketbook, it might hurt the animals I am afraid. And that would be the only approach that might work. I do believe there is a lawsuit going forward right now to charge the zoo with animal cruelty in regards to their treatment of the elephants, in order to force the city to withdraw the funding they provide. That could “encourage” them to release the elephants to a reputable sanctuary. They have compelling solid evidence that it would be hard for the zoo to refute. Not sure what the status of this lawsuite is currently. Anybody know?

  36. Franky says:

    Fordham J. Your suggestion I am “just a simplistic” person is total cow poop!

    The fact I support zoos is not that I don’t care for the animals….. many animals at the WPZ recognize me as they see me weekly. I support a diverisied DNA gene pool, meaning let’s preserve what breeding stock that is captive…. ………….bred a raised captive.
    Animals in the wild are different critters. They have their own survival instincts. Diverse DNA is the big issue here…. as opposed to your “all animals must be free and wild.”

    That’s a nice goal but I will assure you, if all zoo animals were returned back into their natural environment 99 out of 100 would be dead in a year.

    Why don’t you like “zoo folks?” How many do you know…. really know….. live near and meet in the ‘hood as we all live our private lives.

    How many zoo folks do YOU really know?
    Please explain……. cuz I suspect you know none beyond reading their names on the web, and anti-zoo propaganda.

  37. Fordham J says:

    I used to work at a zoo, Franky. I know exactly what goes on there. This nonsense about the “gene pool” is preposterous when you’re talking about elephants. Elephants don’t breed well in captivity and most of the calves don’t survive to adulthood (remember what happened to Hansa?), so you’re not helping their “gene pool”. The zoo industry knows this. The breeding program is a desperate attempt to reverse their declining population in zoos which is declining because of disease and small, deprived living conditions.

    I suggest you use “Spell Check” for future posts. You really need to do that.

  38. Franky says:

    Like all anti zooists you must have the last say. I’ll yield to that… even though you’re wrong.

    Same to you on spell check.

  39. Fordham J says:

    I’m not an “anti-zooist”. I just think zoos need to understand what they can do appropriately and what they can’t. And they can’t keep elephants appropriately. Elephants need to walk miles per day. They need the exercise and they need to be able to forage on a wide variety of naturally growing vegetation which Woodland Park Zoo can’t allow them to do. They don’t do well when they are locked up most of the time in small barn rooms and small yards. Duh.

  40. Franky says:

    Are you trying to write you prefer these elephants belong in Howenwald?
    Last I looked they had 27 elephants divided into two groups… African & Asian. Both groups spend 60+ fridged winter days and nights in two huge barns during the time the outside temp in Tennessee is in the 10’s & 20’s.
    You may now have the final say.

  41. Allen Nyhuis says:

    Good gosh, the great Woodland Park Zoo is taking steps to help preserve a very endangered species and the extremists are still out there criticizing! I applaud this move and look forward to seeing a beautiful baby elephant. Woodland Park has one of my favorite elephant habitats, with that long walking trail and the realistic Thai barn.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos

  42. Fordham J says:

    That “long walking trail” takes just 60 seconds for the elephants to traverse and they never have access to more than a fraction of an acre part of it since two of the three elephants have never gotten along so must be kept separated. You’re one of the most ill-informed people around, Allen, and are clearly living in the 19th Century. “America’s Best Zoos” is an oxymoron.

  43. Justin says:

    “Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos”

    Best for who? In my opinion, WPZ does an adequate job for some of it’s inhabitants. But definitely not all, and most definitely not for the elephants. Not many zoos (maybe none) do enough for their elephants. Just not enough space. WPZ needs to step it up if they honestly do care about the welfare of the animals residing there.

  44. Fordham J says:

    They don’t. Now talk about money, that they care about.

  45. Seattle Taxpayer says:

    Irresponsible. These elephants should go to a sanctuary, they don’t have enough space, they are going insane, they have herpes, they are abused and neglected by the zoo for profit. It is an UGLY STAIN ON SEATTLE which is otheriwse a progressive city to be proud of. Any elected official who supports the zoo and keeping the elephants there should be ousted at next chance!!!!! And, I hope the advocates lawsuit is successful. The SUFFERING that these elephants endure is impossible to appreciate. For god’s sake, they are locked up inside for the winter….they sway back and forth because they are going crazy. MOVE THEM, NOW!