Hansa, the first Asian elephant to be born in captivity in Washington, has died. She was six years old. She became ill a week or so ago and veterinarians and caregivers had been treating her, and she had seemed to take a turn for the better. She passed away in her sleep a few nights ago. When her caregivers found her, her mother, Chai, was with her.
Hansa was dearly loved by those who cared for her and watched her grow up. She received the best care it was possible for her to receive within the confines of a zoo.
But elephants travel 30-50 miles per day. This is their natural habit; they need this in order to be healthy. The Woodland Park Zoo could only offer the elephants one acre. Even though the zoo did all it could to create the kind of space elephants need and can thrive in, an acre just isn’t enough. There were other things– two sad chapters in which Hansa was struck with objects for, for example, eating dirt. Chai, her mother, her aunties, would not have struck her. The zoo defended the practices as appropriate, but why is it appropriate for human beings to strike a baby elephant who is no danger to anybody, not even herself?
I am wondering if it isn’t time to end the practice of confining these magnificant creatures in zoos, however well they are cared for, however much they are loved.
Elephants are intelligent, sensitive, and highly social creatures. They cry, tears of sadness, and they comfort one another. They hold vigils over their dead which last up to a week and carefully cover the bodies of those who have passed on. They also recognize the bones of their dead. They protect, defend and care for one another. They are matriarchal. The mothers, grandmothers and aunties lead and care for the herd, and the bulls keep the younger males in line. They are family, tribal.
The elephants are suffering now, worldwide, in the wild. Generations of having been killed and brutalized by human beings for their ivory or for food, together with the loss of their habitat to human encroachment has deeply affected elephant culture, traumatized herds and severely reduced the elephant population. While it can be argued that keeping some elephants in zoos has served to preserve the elephant gene pool, and while it is helpful to elephants to have the support of all the people who watch them in the zoos and come to love them, too many of them die in captivity.
We are at a time in history where human beings can love and support the elephants from a respectful distance, without capturing and confining them, by watching them on webcams as they go about their daily lives in their own habitat.
I know the zookeepers at Woodland Park are grieving and devastated right now; the elephants are family to them. All of us who love the elephants and loved Hansa are grieving, too.
I think a fine tribute to Hansa’s memory, though, might be to send the elephants remaining at Woodland Park and in other zoos to the elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, where they can live out their days in freedom and peace.
We are coming to a time in history in which we are going to have to step aside, as humans, and share the earth with the animals, or face the consequences. The age of the rule of men must come to an end, or there will be no earth left to rule. Human abuse, dominance, brutality and mistreatment of the elephants and all creatures cannot continue. We must find new ways to live together on the earth peacefully, harmoniously and respectfully with all of these many intelligent, beautiful creatures whose cultures we are just beginning to understand, or we will all pay the price for our shortsightedness and human arrogance.
Rest in peace, sweet Hansa. You will be missed and never forgotten.