Photo by Keith Johnson / The Deseret News

By Matthew D. LaPlante 
The Salt Lake Tribune
September 12, 2008 

She was born 27 years ago in the wilds of Africa. By the time she was a year old, she had been ripped from her family.

Penned, chained and shipped to a noisy new world, her California keepers allowed her to roam only a few paces this way and a few paces that. She was bullied and dominated. She lost a baby. She was poked, prodded, cut and left in pain.

Misha the elephant died Tuesday on the concrete floor of a cinderblock building in a lot behind her most recent home at Utah's Hogle Zoo, some 10,000 miles from where she was born.

No one is certain yet what caused her death, at what could be described as "middle age" for an elephant. But one of Misha's former trainers has a strong suspicion: "She lost her will."

Out of Africa
It was the early 1980s in South Africa. Apartheid was law. Nelson Mandela was in prison. And the nation's population of elephants, which had fallen to less than 200 earlier in the century, had steadily climbed to more than 8,000, pushing against the capacity of the country's wildlife reserves.

Between 1981 and 1983, the South African government approved the killing of more than 3,200 elephants. The government also permitted the capture of some of the animals - mostly juveniles, whose size and temperament made their integration into captivity easier - for transport overseas.

"The only way you could do it was to kill the mother first," said Les Schobert, a retired California zoo curator who procured a number of elephant calves in the early 1980s before growing disenchanted with the industry. "You couldn't get a baby elephant away from its mom in any other way. You had to shoot the mom and then collect the babies."

In most cases, Schobert said, the calves were still drinking their mother's milk and had to be trained to use a bottle. Many couldn't make the transition. From a quarter to a third of the calves died within four months of arriving in the United States, Schobert said. "That was the risk you ran by importing them."

Hundreds of elephants made their way to the United States in this way. Among them was Misha.
Under California Stars. At about 2 years old, when many elephant calves are just beginning to be weaned, Misha arrived at Marine World, Africa, U.S.A., in Redwood City, Calif., an aging theme park with animal attractions, a few low-tech rides and a popular water-skiing show.

In the summer of 1986, the park's menagerie - including performing pachyderms, tropical birds, wild cats, dolphins and killer whales - was moved to a larger campus, 60 miles north in Vallejo.

That's where elephant trainer Barbara Anderson met Misha, in 1990.

"We had 12 elephants at that time," Anderson recalled, ticking off the animals' names like a proud mother. "In particular, Tika, Tava, Misha and Malaika were all pretty tight. They were good friends."

Misha was always nervous, Anderson said, "and she was never going to be the dominant one in the herd." But Anderson said Misha also didn't let herself get picked on. It's unclear when that all changed - but park veterinary records make it clear that it did.

Anderson left the park in 1996, upset that the organization was not making better efforts to modernize its elephant training methods and habitats. "Of course," she said. "They were losing a lot of money."

Indeed, dwindling attendance had left the nonprofit Marine World Foundation millions in the red. In fall 1997, it defaulted on its loans, which had been guaranteed by the city.

When Vallejo couldn't find a buyer for the park, it assumed ownership of the campus, buildings and more than 3,000 animals - including Misha's herd of elephants, which by that time was down to 10 animals. Promptly, the city turned control of the park over to the for-profit Premier Parks Inc.

Living Out Loud
Premier had a plan: It would break from the park's traditional focus on animal education in order to offer its visitors more thrills. And if successful, it would exercise an option to buy the park.

At the time, Premier president Gary Story told The San Francisco Chronicle that his company had been "sensitive to add attractions which will not disturb or disrupt the animals."

Less than two years later, Premier began construction on the tallest, fastest and longest wooden roller coaster in Northern California. It's name belied another distinction - they called it "The Roar" and park advertisements enticed guests to "hear it!"

Today, the park now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is chock full of rides and exhibits. And its elephant habitat lies within a peanut's throw of a half-dozen thrill rides, including three super-fast, steel-track roller coasters.

Four years in a row, the California-based nonprofit In Defense of Animals has placed Discovery Kingdom on its list of "10 Worst Zoos for Elephants," noting that "nine elephants have died at the amusement park since 1995." That's a rate of one death every 16 months among animals that, in most cases, were no more than middle-aged.

Suzanne Roy, the association's program director, said it's no surprise that so many of the park's elephants died early.

"They're living there in the midst of a noisy, crowded amusement park, in the shadow of several roller coasters, housed in this tiny zoo lot...just crammed in there," Roy said. "It's a completely unnatural environment."

Nowhere To Run
When Anderson left Misha's side in 1996, she said, she left an animal that, while often timid, could hold her own within the herd. But by 1999, that had changed.

Veterinary records obtained by In Defense, under California's Public Records Act, show that Misha - then 18 years old and more than 7,400 pounds - was known to be the frequent victim of other elephants' attacks. One her most frequent assailants was Liz, an older female of nearly 10,000 pounds.

Over several years, the records show, Misha was attacked by Liz and others, resulting in a number of deep lacerations, abrasions and some internal injuries which left her with weeks of bloody stool.

Hogle Zoo spokeswomen Holly Braithwaite said that, in Utah, animals that are bullied by their peers in a dangerous way are separated.

"The Association of Zoos and Aquariums stressed the ability to separate the animals if they are not getting along," Braithwaite said. "We don't want to have our animals hurt ... we're not going to put animals in together if they are not getting along."

And Anderson noted that the Marine World lot was exceptionally small for the number of animals it held. "You can't just throw them all in there and expect them to get along," she said. "They've got to have the ability to run away from danger."

Breaking Point
In 2001, park officials decided they would attempt to impregnate Misha to add to their herd. The process included an episiotomy - a vaginal incision that later grew infected and stayed that way for more than two months. Records show urine frequently leaked through it.

Meanwhile, the records show Misha was suffering from a large lesion on her lower left jaw, which would grow deeper, more sensitive and more infected over the next four years. At one point in fall 2001, vets attempting to clean the site broke off the tip of a knife in Misha's jaw.

"After many attempts at retrieval," the record states, "the blade tip was left in."

Association of Zoos and Aquariums spokesman Steve Feldman said that such medical records can only accurately be understood by a veterinarian. "You need to be qualified to understand," he said. "The care of exotic wildlife is extremely complicated and a difficult world to understand."

In March 2003, after 22 months of pregnancy - full term for an African elephant - Misha gave birth.

Like many other calves born in captivity, Misha's did not survive. Records show the attending veterinarians were able to revive the stillborn calf for only a few minutes before losing it for good.

Not quite a year later, the insemination team tried again - reopening the incision even as they continued to battle the persistent infection in Misha's jaw, which had grown to a hole 8 inches deep. The second insemination didn't work.

By that time, the thrill park had added several more roller coasters and attendance was again rising. Critics, including some on Vallejo's City Council, pushed the park's owners to use the opportunity to modernize their animal training methods.

In particular, they wanted the park to follow the lead of zoos across the United States that had ended the practice of "free contact," in which trainers move freely about the elephant's exhibits, coercing and disciplining animals with sticks and hooks. But the park continued that technique.

In June 2004, Misha made the news around the world when she knocked down zookeeper Patrick Chapple with her trunk, then gored him through the back and abdomen. Zoo officials said the attack was unprovoked.

Chapple survived. Misha was isolated, and remained so until April 2005, when she was packed into a crate, loaded onto a truck, and driven 700 miles to Utah.

Six Flags spokeswoman Nancy Chan said her facility was "extremely proud" of the care it provided to Misha, who Chan said "was in excellent health when she was transferred to the Hogle Zoo."

Dying Young
On nature reserves in Africa, elephants can live well into their 60s, according to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. By comparison, the oldest African elephant in an American Zoo is 48 years old - her name is Hydari, and she's lived at Utah's Hogle Zoo since 1967.

Given the zoo's success with Hydari and given Misha's relatively young age, Hogle's lead elephant keeper, Doug Tomkinson, said he expected that Misha would be part of the Utah herd for decades to come.

After all, Misha had been given an improved living situation - placed back into contact with other elephants and in a "protected contact" environment, where zookeepers do not go into the creatures' habitats. And though Hogle officials said they were aware of Misha's prior medical complications, she had experienced no significant problems since arriving in Utah.

Her attitude also seemed to have taken a turn for the better. Whatever inner turmoil had caused her to turn on a trainer a year earlier did not appear to be present in Utah.

"Misha was always a happy and playful elephant," said Holly Braithwaite, the Hogle spokeswoman. "Misha quickly became close to her keepers ... she was just a good, hard-working, caring animal."

When Misha's health began to falter last month - she was losing energy, was having trouble sleeping, wasn't eating and seemed to be in great pain - Hogle's animal staff was bewildered and concerned. As her condition grew steadily worse, the zoo's staff worked around the clock to diagnose her ailment, taking tests, consulting with experts from other parks and even using a crane to help her stand when she could not do so alone.

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, the staff gathered to make a collective decision about whether to continue. "We felt like the only fair thing to do was to put her to sleep," said Dr. Nancy Carpenter, the zoo's lead veterinarian.

Last Goodbye
By the time she was put down, the once 7,400-pound elephant was down to 6,000 pounds. But if there are any guesses as to what caused Misha's sudden downturn, Hogle officials aren't saying.

The results of a necropsy performed on Wednesday won't likely be made public for several weeks. And lab tests could take even longer.

But Anderson isn't waiting for the results - they can't tell her what she already knows about Misha.

"Here is what you've done," Anderson said. "You've taken this animal and taught her to fear. You've put her in a tiny yard and then disciplined her when she fought back. You've put this totally social animal in isolation, denying her any social experiences and then shipped her off."

Whatever the ultimate answer to Misha's sudden death, Anderson said, to her, the big mystery is no mystery at all. "She lost her will."