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Beloved Asian elephant dies at Oklahoma City Zoo

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OKLAHOMA CITY - A beloved elephant has died at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Chai was a 37-year-old female Asian elephant who arrived last May from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Zookeepers found her in the elephant yard around 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

"Our hearts are broken," said Tara Henson, the zoo's director of public relations. "There were no clinical signs of health issues with Chai. She was normal, behaving well yesterday."

The Oklahoma City Zoo said Chai received regular wellness checkups and routine observations from keepers and “seemed to be healthy.”

The zoo said the median life expectancy for female Asian elephant is 47 years of age.

Veterinary staff will be performing a necropsy to help determine the cause of death. Initial results may not be available until early next week.

The zoo said the remaining elephant herd is behaving normally.

Chai's arrival in Oklahoma City was a controversial one.

People in Seattle felt Chai and Bamboo, a 47-year-old Asian elephant, should have been moved to a sanctuary in California.

Animal rights groups went to court to try to stop the relocation.

TV icon and game show host Bob Barker was one of those strongly opposed to the move, saying Oklahoma's climate was unfavorable to the animals.

Barker and others were also concerned about the effect a zoo habitat would have on the animals.

Barker instead favored the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California.

"This sanctuary that they're talking about is the nearest thing to an elephant's natural habitat," said Barker to KFOR. "It's acres and acres of land."

Many in the Seattle community expressed their frustration and anger with the move to the Oklahoma Zoo on a local TV station's Facebook page.

“Everybody is really sad and surprised and shocked," said Woodland Park Zoo spokesman David Schaefer, according to KING 5.

Chai is the second elephant to die at the Oklahoma Zoo in the last four months.

In October, a four-year-old Asian elephant named Malee died of a viral infection.

"I can't say that they're unrelated because I'm not a veterinarian, but I can say that I don't think we should be concerned about that," Henson said. "Personally, I want to make sure I send my condolences from our zoo family to our friends and colleagues in Seattle. It's heartbreaking for them too, and it certainly is for us."

The elephant exhibit remains open, but the special elephant presentations have been cancelled for the weekend.

The PETA Foundation released this statement:

"Chai did not have to die this way, in this crowded zoo, when she had had a chance to live in a sanctuary and be watched over and cared for. She endured a lifetime of unthinkable violations, including at least 112 instances of artificial insemination. Less than a year ago, the Woodland Park Zoo denied her the chance of a real retirement and sent her to the Oklahoma City Zoo, where an elephant calf died in October of a highly fatal disease associated with captive elephants. For the sake of these elephants' health and safety, PETA is calling for this elephant exhibit to be shut down immediately and for the elephants to finally be sent to an accredited sanctuary, where they will never die alone and unassisted as Chai did."

Officials with the Oklahoma City Zoo say a full necropsy was performed on Chai, but there is no definitive cause of death or obvious signs of infectious disease at this time.

Final lab results may take a month or longer to receive.