Archive: Former Detroit Zoo Elephant Wanda Dies

February 12, 2015


A three-day journey from Michigan to California a decade ago marked the beginning of a new life for two Asian elephants and sparked an international conversation about how elephants are faring in captivity.

Wanda and Winky – aging, arthritic elephants at the Detroit Zoo – endured their last harsh Michigan winter and moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., in April 2005. There, they enjoyed creature comforts that included dozens of acres of varied natural terrain on which to wander with other elephants, California sunshine, lakes to play in and large living quarters equipped with heated stalls and therapeutic Jacuzzis.

Despite the improved conditions that added years and a great quality of life to the elephants, both continued to experience complications from chronic foot problems and severe arthritis.

Wanda took a turn for the worse in the past few weeks and days, and the decision was made late last night to humanely end her life. She was 57.

“We knew this day was coming, but we are all sad,” said Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director Ron Kagan. “We can never thank the staff at PAWS enough for giving these two lovely beings such excellent care and many great years.”

Both Wanda and Winky had chronic arthritis and foot problems, developed over years of zoo captivity. The pair had been at the Detroit Zoo for about a decade before being moved to the PAWS sanctuary. Winky was euthanized in 2008 at the age of 56 due to complications from severe arthritis.

Arthritis in captive elephants is common and is believed to be a result of living in small areas, often standing on hard, flat floors for long periods of time. In the wild, elephants live in warm climates and roam vast areas, often walking many miles a day.

“While elephants can endure cold temperatures, they are better suited to a mild climate which allows them to be outside, safely roaming over large areas of natural substrate – not ice – all or much of the year,” said Kagan. “Despite expansion of our elephant habitat in 1998, we determined that there was no realistic way to provide an ideal physical space or a natural social environment for Wanda and Winky, especially during Michigan winters.”

The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in the country to decide solely on ethical grounds to no longer keep elephants. In the years since, more zoos have made the same decision.

“Wanda’s death, while very sad, will hopefully continue the conversation about how zoos can play a significant role in reshaping public attitudes and values toward the humane treatment of animals,” said Kagan. “This is the end of a chapter, but not the end of the story.”

For more information on PAWS or to contribute to the care of other retired elephants, visit