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After Chai's death, PETA urges immediate closure of Okla. zoo elephant exhibit

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SEATTLE - An international animal rights organization is calling for the Oklahoma City Zoo to close its elephant exhibit after the sudden death of an elephant relocated there from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo last year.

Instead, the Oklahoma zoo's elephants should be sent to an accredited sanctuary, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement released Sunday.

Chai, a 37-year-old female Asian elephant who was moved from Seattle to Oklahoma, was found dead by zookeepers around 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning. It is unclear what caused her death, and staff performed a necropsy to help determine what happened.

Oklahoma zoo staff said she was behaving normally beforehand and that her death comes as a shock to them. A viral infection killed a 4-year-old elephant at that same zoo back in October.

Chai arrived in Oklahoma City with 48-year-old Bamboo, a second female Asian elephant. The Woodland Park Zoo had faced several complaints in recent years about how its elephants were treated, so the zoo decided last year to end its elephant program.

PETA is now calling for the Oklahoma zoo's remaining elephants to be sent to a sanctuary.

"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," PETA said in a statement. "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."

The results of the necropsy into Chai's death may not be available for a couple of weeks, said Oklahoma City Zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson.

"Chai had been in good health late (Friday) evening for sure," Henson said. "She had been eating well, moving well, and interacting with the herd, so there was really nothing to indicate she had anything going on about her health."

Chai also received regular checkups.

"There was nothing to lead us to believe this was going to happen, so we're heartbroken and are saddened for not only our community and how we feel here at the zoo, but also for our friends and colleagues there in Seattle," Henson said. "We're absolutely stunned and very sad."

Woodland Park Zoo officials said the Oklahoma City zoo option was chosen from among 32 options because it has a $13 million state-of-the-art facility with three outdoor yards, a waterfall and a technologically-advanced barn with amenities including views into the barn from a raised boardwalk.

The decision to move the elephants was met with protests from animal rights groups, who had pushed strongly for a sanctuary option.

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