Two days after the Oregon zoo's youngest elephant died abruptly, protestors gathered at the zoo entrance and begged visitors to turn back.

The death of Lily, an elephant who would have celebrated her sixth birthday yesterday, has reignited concerns over the treatment of animals in captivity.

"The elephants need to be in a sanctuary, not at a zoo. The zoo is a prison for elephants," says Gina Scavera, an organizer with Voice for Asian Elephants Society.

Lily died just two days after routine blood tests showed that endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) was active in the elephant's blood. EEHV is found in most Asian elephants in the wild and in captivity, but usually lies dormant, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Researchers have not found what causes the virus to become active, but when it does, it is almost always fatal.

"Our staff did everything they could and fought to save [Lily] until the very end. Everyone is in mourning here. It is just heartbreaking," Oregon Zoo director Dr. Don Moore said in a statement from the zoo on Friday.

Rose-Tu and her four year old daughter, Lily, right, in Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Kathy Street
Rose-Tu and her four year old daughter, Lily, right, in Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Kathy Street

Equipped with signs and flyers, protestors urged thousands of ZooLights visitors to reconsider entering the zoo.

"We're here to send a message to the public and the zoo that the breeding at the Oregon Zoo of elephants needs to stop. Lily is the latest casualty," says Courtney Scott, president of Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants (FOZE). "This can stop, and it needs to stop, because [the zoo is] just breeding more and more elephants to lead lifetimes of captivity, suffering and diseases."

Zoo officials have repeatedly denounced claims made by FOZE and Care2, another of the protest organizers, saying that the organizations' previous campaigns were "based on false and misleading information."

The Oregon Zoo is overseen by the regional planning agency Metro, but Scott says efforts to persuade the Metro Council to take action against the zoo's elephant breeding have been fruitless.

Outside the zoo, visitors waiting to enter seemed nonplussed by the protestors.

Protesters outside the Oregon Zoo on Dec. 1, 2018. (Anna Del Savio)
Protesters outside the Oregon Zoo on Dec. 1, 2018. (Anna Del Savio)

While some took flyers or asked questions, others took issue with the topic or the timing. "I wish they were like this with Black Lives Matter," one woman said to her companion after listening to the protestors' impassioned chants. Others told protestors to "keep your opinions to yourself" as they entered ZooLights with their families.

Members of FOZE protest outside the zoo twice a month, according to Scott. "We always meet people who are interested and receptive. A lot of people aren't, they're either not receptive or they're openly hostile," says Scott. "But the other people, the few that we do meet, they are spreading the seed."