Chendra at the Oregon Zoo

Story by anonymous-

I worry about each one of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo, and I generally worry about them in this order:
First Chendra (she was taken from the wild in Asia);

Then Rose-Tu (she was beaten so severely by a zookeeper that it changed Oregon state law regarding animal abuse);

Then Tusko (who was purchased from “Have Trunk Will Travel”, the animal rental entertainment business caught on undercover video training their elephants by using stun guns,  beating them with bullhooks, chaining them, and  dragging a baby elephant by the trunk);

Then Packy (who was born at the Oregon Zoo over fifty years ago and has never roamed across acres of soft grass, or browsed from live trees, or chosen his own mate. He has an abscess on his head from lying on concrete, foot disease from living in a small space with only concrete floors and compacted dirt to walk on, a foot injury from repeatedly kicking a closed door, a scar that appears to be from a bullhook wound, and TB.  He has been repeatedly restrained and bled for Dr. Ursula Bechert’s Ibuprofen and Phenylbutazone dosage studies, and has also been the object of repeated attempts to extract sperm via unnatural, forced means for artificial insemination in the Oregon Zoo breeding program).

The reasons to worry about each elephant at the Oregon Zoo go on and on. It’s Chendra, though, I have wondered about the most. She was imported to the Oregon Zoo from the wild in Asia and is reportedly the only pygmy Borneo elephant in the entire United States. What is it like to be the only one of your kind in the entire country you are held captive in? To have all the connections to the ones you’ve known since you were small severed? To never touch your loved ones (or feel your loved ones touch you) again? She has no chance of ever seeing another from her own family, her own herd, her own kind even, for the rest of her life.

She was reportedly found alone and injured near a palm oil plantation in Asia.  Did harm come to her and her herd from the rampant destruction and development across wild land? Was she captured intentionally, as wild elephants often are, for captivity? Was any of her herd still alive when she was taken? How was she injured?

Chendra’s injury led to blindness in one of her eyes. The Oregon Zoo states that this defect made her an unlikely candidate for release back into the wild, but does not explain why she was transported to their zoo located on another continent, instead of placed in a sanctuary or other protected wildlife care on her own continent.

She was taken out of the habitat she was biologically suited for, and removed from the ecosystem that still needs her and her herd, as well as all wild elephants, to thrive. (Even elephant dung attracts the insects that nourish the birds in the wild. Even the hairs from the dead body of an elephant’s tail are used by the wild birds to build life-sustaining nests.) She was transported thousands of miles to a continent and ecosystem that elephants are not naturally a part of.

How was Chendra the wild elephant transported to a different continent? Did it happen in the traditional way, where she would be made to feel so much physical pain that she would learn to comply with human commands out of fear?  Was she “broken”, so she could eventually be controlled by the zookeepers at the Oregon Zoo who use bullhooks?

At the Oregon Zoo Chendra is kept in a 1.5 acre exhibit with all the other zoo elephants. This is where she will presumably spend the rest of her life. (There is a dreary, expensive exhibit refurbishment underway, which will eventually give the elephants a total of about two more acres of space. The cost of this revamp is over 50 million dollars.)

Within two months of arriving at the Oregon Zoo Chendra developed the same painful (and over time, often fatal) foot disease that plagues the other zoo elephants. I assume just like the other zoo elephants, too, she now bares bullhook wounds.  And also just like the other zoo elephants, Chendra now displays zoochosis (bobbing, swaying, rocking, repetitive, stress-induced tics).

Finally, Chendra is reportedly shunned by the other zoo elephants. Perhaps because she is of a different breed all together, or perhaps because there were already too many elephants pushed together in one tiny exhibit and the crowding causes hostility and aggression. One elephant in particular repeatedly tried to attack her.

I have read that Chendra is next in line in the Oregon Zoo’s artificial breeding program. (Rose-Tu is currently the female elephant they forcibly artificially inseminate. When Rose-Tu was five she was beaten so severely with a bullhook at the Oregon Zoo that the extent of her injures could not be ascertained. Some of the wounds were allegedly caused by the Oregon zookeeper trying to force a bullhook into Rose-Tu’s anus. A vet counted 176 lacerations but then had to stop the examination because Rose-Tu was too agitated to continue. It has been surmised that the trauma caused by Rose-Tu’s beating may be why she tried to trample her first newborn to death. The zoo solved this by pulling Rose-Tu’s newborn immediately away from her after she gave birth the next time.)

All of the elephants are so vulnerable. I’m looking around and I’m wondering – when is someone wise, compassionate and authoritative going to step in and protect them?

Why is no one stepping in and protecting them?

My dream for Chendra is so hopeful, so wondrous and so full of love that I almost can’t write it down, but this is it:

The most caring, knowledgeable, competent, wise, compassionate and loving team of veterinarians, care-givers, animal communicators and supporters gather around Chendra, and together they make the journey with her back to Asia. Once there, she is carefully, gently, lovingly placed in Boons Lot Elephant Sanctuary. Here, she is never hurt or forced to do things with a bullhook.  Here, she wanders for acres across soft, warm earth and begins to heal her feet. Here she enjoys the warm sun on her back, and the warm sun on her ears. She cools off in a pond, she takes mud baths, she dusts herself.  She browses. Her browsing and roaming stimulates renewal in the forest. Her very presence nourishes the earth. She re-acquaints herself with what it is like to have the free choice to do something…To wander alone, or to seek out company, to settle down on a grassy hillside for a nap. She feels safe enough to do these simple things.  True friendships with the other elephants naturally unfold on their own slow, gentle timelines.  She feels the warm breezes of her childhood once more. Even if she can never see or touch any of the elephants from her own herd again, she could at least have this.

I know it is improbable that the Oregon Zoo will wake up tomorrow morning and think this is a wonderful idea. But I still have hope for Chendra.  I hope, before too much more time passes, that she will be carefully and kindly  placed at the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary (TES) or the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) here in the U.S. Being moved to one of these sanctuaries is absolutely possible (as other zoos have already proven).  Perhaps returning to Asia is unlikely, but we could still give Chendra acres of soft earth to roam on and a warmer, much more hospitable climate to live in.

TES or PAWS would not force Chendra to endure repeated artificial insemination attempts. TES or PAWS would give Chendra relief from bullhooks for the rest of her life.

Although the Oregon Zoo has been adamant that none of their elephants will go to PAWS (or TES), ironically, one elephant from the Oregon Zoo lives at PAWS already. Prince was born in the breeding program at the Oregon Zoo, and then was sold/traded to Ringling Brothers Circus when he was 16 months old. He was not yet weaned from his mother’s milk when he was taken from her. Oregon zoo trainers reported that when Price was dragged away from his mother, she screamed and banged her head against the wall for hours.

Stoney was also born in the Oregon Zoo breeding program and  was also sold/traded by the zoo at a young age, just like Prince.  Eventually Stoney ended up in a Las Vegas circus show. His hamstring was critically hurt when he was forced to perform tricks involving standing on his hind legs. He never received veterinary care, and after much pain and neglect, died (still a young elephant) from his injuries.

(It is worth noting that when the founders of PAWS heard that Stoney had not received vet care and was in peril, they offered, at their own expense, to care for him. Stoney’s owner did not accept their offer. To my knowledge, the Oregon Zoo never reached out to help Stoney, and  has never acknowledged their responsibility in Stoney’s tragic life and death.)

Prince was kept in the circus for 22 years, until he was miraculously and luckily retired to the care of PAWS sanctuary. He still lives there today.

Why can’t we offer this refuge of sanctuary to Chendra, and then (because it would be unethical and heartbreaking to do otherwise) to each one of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo?  For Packy, for Rama, for Tusko, for Samudra, for Rose-Tu, for Shine, for Chendra, and for Lily?  Can each elephant be wisely, lovingly placed in just the right sanctuary?  The bonded ones who need to stay together, placed together.  And the ones who would find relief in separation, placed apart. Ease and peace and health and dignity and kindness and pleasure, and even fun, even moments of pure fun, for each one of them.  Why can’t we offer them this?  What will it take to offer them this?

I am completely uncomfortable protesting and advocating.  I was yelled at by an incensed zoo member when I passed out literature advocating for the elephants once at the entrance to the Oregon Zoo. She angrily threw the hand-out she had taken back in my face, shouted, and then stomped away, giving no chance for us to talk. This was daunting and a little frightening.  Most of all I’ve spent too many late night hours sending carefully written emails to the governing body that oversees the zoo, which have been mostly ignored.

I’m still trying, though.  Something about these elephants, and about Chendra in particular, has taken hold of me and there is no turning back now. I can’t will myself to stop caring.

I hope that one day soon we will no longer need to worry about Chendra, or any of the Oregon Zoo elephants, because we will have finally done what is best for them.




  1. REPLY
    FOZE says

    Hello, thanks for the moving post on the elephants at Oregon zoo. FOZE (Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, is working to make it better for the captive elephants at the zoo. We’d like to encourage the author of this post to get in touch with us to work together.
    Thank you

  2. REPLY
    Ietje Breunis says

    Thank you for caring and sharing. Isn’t it true?-Once you start caring you can’t turn away anymore. Little by little, stories like yours will change the elephant’s fate.

  3. REPLY
    Kim says

    Thank you for sharing this. If there’s some way I can help let me know.

  4. REPLY
    Elizabeth says

    Thank you for your work and all that you do for the elephants! RIP Lily!!!

  5. REPLY
    Sickofanimalabuse says

    The person in charge of the elephants at the Portland zoo ia a guy named Michael Keele. He was drawing a huge salary from the zoo while testifying for $ 125 an hour on the behalf of Ringlands Brothers Circus that using bull hooks and other forms of torture was humane. How does a elephant trainer with no college go from houses in Lake Oswego, then Forest Heights and finally to a $900,000 plus home in Eagle Creek? Maybe you start a elephant breeding program and sell off to the highest bidder?

  6. REPLY
    Arthur Schumann says

    Can anyone talk to the Portland city council and Mayor? Ask them to Please shut down the elephant exhibit and let all the elephants go to Sanctuary’s. The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle shut down their elephant exhibit, but fortunately instead of sending the last 2 remaining elephants to a Sanctuary. They sent them to a zoo in Oklahoma where they were later euthanized. The future of zoos in USA is not to have elephant exhibits, but to have elephants in elephant Sanctuary’s.

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