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Saturday, June 9, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle zoo's beloved young elephant dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the Woodland Park Zoo, it was like a death in the family.

Plainly distraught, even barely able to speak at times for choking back tears, zoo administrators announced the death of 6 ½-year-old elephant Hansa, who was found dead in her stall Friday, her mother standing by her side.

Hansa was the city's first elephant born at the zoo. Wildly popular, she grew up with the city's young and young at heart.

The zoo, which gets about 1 million visitors a year, saw attendance double immediately after the 235-pound calf was born Nov. 3, 2000.

"She captured hearts," said Gigi Allianic, zoo spokeswoman.

"She was a little princess," said head veterinarian Kelly Helmick. "She was definitely spoiled. She had a big old food belly, and was just starting to mature and drop some of that baby weight. We were just talking about her future.

"It's kind of a shock," Helmick said through tears. Then she could not go on.

Hansa's death is both a surprise and a mystery. The young elephant began feeling ill late last week. She was off her feed and seemed a little tired.

Veterinarians at the zoo checked her over, and over again. But they couldn't find anything definitively wrong. They gave her extra fluids, vitamins and antibiotics — just in case. By early this week, Hansa (HAHN-suh) seemed to be getting better.

But shortly before 8 a.m. Friday, zookeepers discovered the worst.

Many names proposed

When Hansa — the name means "supreme happiness" in Thai — was born, proposed names for the elephant poured in from around the city and the world. A 7-year-old local girl came up with the name that seemed to fit the feisty elephant, who loved having her ears scratched.

When Hansa turned 5, kids turned out in droves to celebrate her birthday with cupcakes for the guest of honor baked from cornmeal, carrots, grapes, raisins and bamboo leaves.

By then, she had already learned her name, and all the core elephant commands: turning in a circle, opening her mouth, raising her trunk and presenting her feet for inspection. She particularly liked cantaloupe and bananas.

A good day for Hansa meant rolling around her ball with her nose, playing in the dirt — especially tossing it on her back with her trunk — and then having a bath.

Healthy since birth

Out of respect for the other elephants in Hansa's herd, the zoo's Elephant Forest exhibit was closed for the day, and possibly longer.

Hansa's body was left undisturbed for the morning, so the other elephants could pay their respects. Social animals, elephants are known to grieve losses in their family.

In the afternoon, a full examination of tissues of Hansa's body, inside and out, began, to determine what took her life. It could be weeks before veterinarians have an answer.

She had been healthy since birth. It was hoped she'd live out a long life at the zoo, reproduce and live with her babies at Woodland Park. The normal life expectancy of an elephant is about 46 years.

Some blamed captivity for her demise. Maria French, president of Northwest Animal Rights Network in Seattle, said the organization has long fought for Woodland Park to end its elephant program. She said the elephants don't have enough room to roam, and that can cause health problems.

At the news conference, the zoo's deputy director, Bruce Bohmke, said there was no reason to think captivity was in any way related to Hansa's death. Her last physical was three months ago, and she looked great, Bohmke said.

Visibly shaken by the loss, Bohmke added: "It was the first elephant birth here for us. We hate to see her die."

The zoo has a remaining herd of three female elephants: Bamboo, an Asian elephant, born in Thailand, is about 40 years old; Chai, Hansa's mother, also an Asian elephant, is 28; and Watoto is a 38-year-old African elephant.

Another baby?

The zoo is already trying for another baby. Zoo officials next month will do tests on Chai, who was artificially inseminated last March, that should indicate whether she is expecting.

In the fall of 1998, the zoo spent $50,000 for travel and stud fees to send Hansa's mother to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where she mated with a sire named Onyx. Before the trip, the zoo had spent six years trying to artificially inseminate the elephant.

Hansa's body will be cremated. Plans for a memorial for the public to pay respects are in the works. The public also is invited to leave memorials outside the zoo's South Entrance at North 50th Street and Fremont Avenue North.

The city has always had a close relationship with its elephants at Woodland Park. The zoo acquired its first elephant, Wide Awake, in 1921, through a communitywide penny drive. Wide Awake lived at the zoo until she died in 1967 at 54.

Pennies from children and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from individuals and corporations helped raise a $2.7 million match to county bond money to build the elephants a new $6 million home, opened in 1989.

In a troubled world with so much human suffering, zoo volunteer Renee Klein said, she understands why people care so much about animals: "We see the best in them."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Staff writer Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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