Death of Baby Zoo Elephant Reignites Calls to End Captive Breeding

While the Oklahoma City Zoo is mourning the sudden death of Malee, a 4-year-old female elephant calf, the tragedy has reignited calls to end captive breeding in zoos.

According to a statement from the zoo, Malee was moving slower than normal last Wednesday before discoloration appeared in her mouth. They began treating her for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), but despite aggressive treatment she passed away in the early morning hours the following day.

The results of preliminary testing found she likely died from EEHV1, but final results are still pending. The disease, which causes internal hemorrhaging, is particularly threatening to young elephants.

Earlier this year advocates raised serious concerns that moving Bamboo and Chai, elephants who were exposed to the virus, from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to the Oklahoma City Zoo could put Malee and her little sister Aschara at risk. Chai’s daughter Hansi died from a strain of EEHV in 2007.

The zoo, however, says they are certain it didn’t come from Bamboo or Chai, and that it’s more likely related to a strain that affected Chandra, Malee’s aunt who contracted it as a calf, along with her mother Asha, who was also previously exposed to it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the zoo has been in the spotlight over this virus.

Back in 2010, In Defense of Animals (IDA) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over concerns that the Oklahoma City Zoo – along with the Houston Zoo, St. Louis Zoo and the Woodland Park Zoo – was violating the Animal Welfare Act by knowingly exposing calves to a high risk of infection to a life-threatening disease.

“It is grossly irresponsible for the Oklahoma City Zoo to breed elephants, knowing that any infant born there faces a high risk of disease and death,” Catherine Doyle, IDA campaign director, said at the time. “IDA is calling on the USDA to stop the reckless breeding of elephants in herpes-affected zoos by adopting a policy that protects calves from unnecessary suffering and horrific deaths.”

Asha was pregnant at the time. While she’s now left to grieve the predictable loss of her baby, Malee’s death has reignited calls from elephant advocates to end captive breeding. The Seattle Times, pointing to its 2012 must-read exposé Glamour Beasts, notes that the investigation found infant mortality among zoo elephants is 40 percent, nearly three times the rate in wild elephant populations, but more importantly it highlighted the fact that for every elephant born in a zoo, an average of two elephants die.

While zoos continue to try to breed more, worse is that at that rate in order to keep a captive population, zoos are going to have to turn to the wild and it looks like that could be about to happen again. Three U.S. zoos, including the Dallas Zoo in Texas, Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas and the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Nebraska, have recently announced plans to import 18 elephants from Swaziland under the guise of a “Conservation Agreement.”

According to those involved, the elephants need to go, particularly to make room for rhinos, and there’s just no other solution, other than to bring them here, split them up and keep them in captivity.

“While Swaziland may truly be in a dire situation, the truth-spin by the zoos is mind boggling, with each zoo claiming heroic, 11th hour efforts saving life-threatened elephants from being killed. This is not a conservation partnership, it is a profit partnership, being sold as a rescue mission,” said IDA.

It would be one thing if keeping them in captivity, or captive breeding in zoos, were going to somehow benefit wild elephants who are continuing to be killed at staggering rates, but their only purpose here is to keep exhibits going.

For updates on the situation, visit In Defense of Animals and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Marija M
Marija M1 years ago

You are right Jane R.

Alison A
Alison A2 years ago

Thanks, petition signed

Janet B
Janet B2 years ago


Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O2 years ago

If Swaziland is in 'dia straights' for room and 'needs' to 'off-load' these elephants then send them to an accredited Elephant Sanctuary, or National Park where they can be protected. At least they will have something of a normal life and be kept together as a family group. NOT to a zoo to profit from.... condolences to baby Marlee and her mother.

Patty L
Patty L2 years ago

sad for Nosey & Malee. RIP Malee. I hope Nosey & other leave this vile place before too late!

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

The world has abused elephants long enough. It is time to stop this madness. The grief of the mother elephant must be horrific.

Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

The world has abused elephants long enough. It is time to stop this madness. The grief of the mother elephant must be horrific.

Julia Cabrera-Woscek

Too saddened about the passiong of this baby.