'Matriarch' of Woodland Park's elephant herd euthanized after sudden & unexpected health issue

SEATTLE --  Zoo keepers at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle announced Friday that they had 'humanely euthanized' 45-year-old African elephant Watoto.

Staff at the zoo said they arrived Friday morning to find Watoto lying down in the elephant yard and unable to move.

Elephant keepers and animal health experts rushed to try and get Watoto to her feet, but were unsuccessful and it was quickly decided her health was rapidly declining.

"With compassion and sadness, Woodland Park Zoo's keepers and animal health staff made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her," said a statement issued by the zoo.

According to the zoo Watoto was born in Kenya between 1969 and 1970 and came to Woodland Park in 1971 as an orphan.  Zoo keepers considered her the 'matriarch' of the zoo's herd and she is the only African elephant at the zoo.

"This is a very difficult time for our zoo family as we mourn the loss of Watoto, a beloved animal and dear friend to our staff and volunteers, members and the community," said zoo CEO Bruce Bohmke in a statement.

The zoo has been under fire by animal rights groups for years over its elephant herd.  Critics have long argued the animals do not belong in zoos and that their physical and mental health is greatly impacted by confinement.

Protestors regularly gather outside the zoo and voice their opposition to the zoo's decision to continue keeping the elephants at Woodland Park.

Watoto is not the first elephant to die a the zoo.  In 2007 Hansa, a 6-year-old female Asian elephant born at the zoo, died in her sleep.  It was determined after a necropsy that Hansa died of a previously unknown type of elephant herpes.

Zoo keepers said a necropsy would be performed on Watoto to try and determine the cause of her sudden decline in health.