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Advocacy group files complaint against Oklahoma City Zoo following death of beloved elephant

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OKLAHOMA CITY – A Seattle-based animal advocacy group has filed a complaint against the Oklahoma City Zoo following the death of a beloved elephant.

In January, zookeepers announced that Chai, a 37-year-old female Asian elephant who arrived last May from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, had died.

“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.”

Chai was found amongst her herd in the midst of breakfast.

“She had a mouth full of food, and she was at the hay feeder, and I think she was just in the middle of eating,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services for the zoo. “It looks like her heart just stopped very, very suddenly.”

Now, the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants filed a complaint with the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners regarding Chai’s death.

The complaint alleges that the zoo did not provide adequate veterinary care to Chai.

Despite zoo officials saying that Chai received regular checkups and seemed to be healthy, the group claims that Chai’s medical records are contrary to that statement.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo say that Chai’s medical records say she suffered from weight loss, emaciation and “shed high levels of the same herpes virus that recently killed another elephant” at the zoo.

The complaint also alleges that Chai even had difficulty getting up on four occasions, two of which required a hoist to get her to stand.

The group says her medical records also show that she had persistent toxic cells in her blood that are associated with a bacterial infection and suffered from 25 pus-filled abscesses that weren’t treated.

“All of these issues are indications that something was seriously wrong with Chai,” said veterinarian Dr. Julia N. Allen. “As a licensed veterinarian, Dr. D’Agostino should have recognized them as warning signs.”

Now, the group is asking the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to complete a thorough investigation into the care the other elephants are receiving.

On Thursday, zoo officials released the following statement:

“The battle to save elephants from extinction and to preserve the species is waged in the wild and daily at accredited zoos and aquariums including the Oklahoma City Zoo,” said Dr. Dwight Lawson, executive director of the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Our detractors with personal agendas to ultimately shut down and hinder these efforts come at a price. These groups have long been manipulating facts and science to meet their goal to forever close the very places that are working to help save these magnificent animals. Our accreditation standards are rigorous and the Zoo has been compliant with any concerns or allegations made against us. We will continue to be forthcoming and transparent about our elephant program. The Zoo’s director of veterinary services, Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, has over 15 years of experience in caring for and studying elephants. She is a board-certified specialist in zoological medicine from the American College of Zoological Medicine. The complaints being lodged against her are coming from individuals with little to no experience with these animals.”

The zoo says it has been contacted by the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners that will work with the United States Department of Agriculture, which is already reviewing the move and death of Chai as a standard operating procedure.

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