When Christy, a 29-year-old African elephant, died at Brookfield Zoo on Dec. 22, 2009 it left the zoo without an elephant of its own for the first time in its 75 year history. And with its only remaining elephant on loan from a California zoo – brought to Brookfield specifically to provide companionship for Christy – it’s possible Brookfield Zoo could be without one of its signature animals for a time.

Joyce, a 26-year-old African elephant on loan from Six Flag Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., is spending the rest of the winter inside the Brookfield Zoo Pachyderm House, which will be closed to visitors until the weather warms up, according to Sondra Katzen, media relations manager for the zoo.

“Right now we’re looking for the right companionship for Joyce,” said Stuart Strahl, president and CEO for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo.

While that companion could be sent to Brookfield Zoo, “they could say send her back or send her somewhere else,” according to Strahl.

Such decisions are not made lightly.

“It’s not as simple as saying we want an elephant; send us one,” Strahl said.

Those kinds of decisions are made by officials in the Species Survival Program, in which all participating organizations in the American Zoological Association share the management of all the animals, particularly threatened species like elephants, in their zoos.

Right now, it’s unclear what Joyce’s future will be at Brookfield Zoo. But, said Strahl, there’s no debating what the future of elephants will be at the institution.

“We’re committed to having elephants here,” he said. “It all has to do with what we believe the mission of the modern zoo is.”

It’s been a tough year for Brookfield Zoo with respect to its elephant collection. The zoo began 2009 with two African elephants, Christy and Affie, a 40-year-old animal that was the sixth oldest African elephant in an accredited North American zoo.

After being a zoo favorite since 1979, Affie died suddenly on May 15, 2009 and her death set off a mini-firestorm of protest from some animal rights activists. A group called In Defense of Animals used Affie’s death to demand that Christy be sent to an elephant sanctuary.

The group contended that conditions at Brookfield Zoo, particularly the small amount of outdoor exhibit space afforded the elephants, contributed to Affie’s death. A month later the group organized a protest rally at the zoo that drew between 15 and 25 people.

A day before that event, the zoo held its own rally in support of the elephant program at Brookfield Zoo.

“Their hearts are in the right place,” said Strahl of the protesters, “but the methods by which they care and the things they care about are different. They care about the animals themselves. We also care deeply about the animals themselves, but we also care about the animals in the wild.”

For Strahl, who has been with the Chicago Zoological Society for six years, the future of species such as elephants and polar bears depend on institutions like zoos. The animals in the zoo, says Strahl, “serve as spokesmen” for species conservation to a population increasingly detached from wildlife.

“The real issue is our kids more than any other generation has lost touch with nature and wildlife,” Strahl said. “That stuff is so foreign to most kids, and with that comes a lack of engagement in the decision-making processes in preserving wildlife.”

Elephants are not only “extremely charismatic animals,” according to Strahl, “they are one of the animals people come to see. They have a particular fascination for folks, but they are also a source of one of the most important lessons about conservation.”

That’s because, he says, elephants are endangered in their natural habitats.

“We’ve lost 60 percent of the elephant population in the last three decades,” Strahl said.

“Is there a better animal to connect people with Africa and the plight of African animals? Our goal here is to get people to ask ‘what can I do about it? How can I get involved.'”

That said, Brookfield Zoo has recognized its space limitations with respect to maintaining elephants in its collection. According to the book Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society published last year, in 1940 there were eight elephants in the zoo’s collection.

That would never happen now, according to Strahl. Given the current area, which was expanded not too long ago, Brookfield Zoo can house two elephants, he said.

But the Chicago Zoological Society has big plans for elephants as part of its overall strategy. According to Strahl, part of the next phase of the ongoing exhibit reconstruction campaign will be creating an elephant habitat roughly 10 times larger than the current one.

Various elephant yards will be connected by bridges, allowing the animals to roam freely between areas. The cost of the project is estimated at $30 million, Strahl said. That’s $4 million more than the Great Bear Wilderness, which opens this year and houses the zoo’s bear and bison collections.

“Few people in America get to see places like the Serengeti or gorillas in the wild or penguins in Patagonia,” Strahl said. “A zoo is the perfect place to make that connection and initiate field projects.

“If these animals are not ambassadors, if they don’t help conserve natural populations, if zoos don’t provide for the best welfare of animals, then we would have far less justification to keep animals in captivity. But we do provide those things.”

Every day since 1934 when Brookfield Zoo opened its doors, there has been an elephant drawing crowds, amazing young and old alike.

Through the years, the zoo has owned 17 elephants – seven Asian and 10 African, according to Sondra Katzen, the zoo’s media relations director

The first was an Asian elephant named Nancy, donated to the zoo in 1933 by George Getz, owner of the Lakewood Farm zoo in Holland, Mich. A good portion of the zoo’s collection, including Cookie the cockatoo who still survives and was recently retired from exhibit, came from Lakewood Farm, which donated its entire collection to the Chicago Zoological Society.

In 1934, the zoo gained another Asian elephant – Minnie – a refugee from the Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago. By 1940 the zoo had eight elephants in its collection, including Ziggy, the elephant that would become one of the zoo’s star attractions.

Ziggy, an Asian bull elephant, was named after a famous former owner Florenz Ziegfeld (of Follies fame). From 1941 to 1970, Ziggy remained indoors, his leg chained to a wall, after attacking his keeper.

He ventured outside again finally in 1970 and five years later, while outside, tumbled into the moat surrounding the exhibit space. The 55-year-old Ziggy died a few months later in October 1975.

Affie came to Brookfield Zoo in 1979 from the Indianapolis Zoo, joined by Christy in 1984.

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