CHICAGO — The only elephants visible these days at the Lincoln Park Zoo's once-popular exhibit are the bronze mother and baby on a nearby drinking fountain.
Even the signs by the empty enclosure have been removed.
Wankie, the last of the three elephants, died last month after transport to Salt Lake City. Tatima and Peaches died in October and January.
The deaths may be both natural and coincidental. Tatima, for instance, was 55 years old; Peaches contracted a rare respiratory disease.
But the elephants are only the largest examples in a string of publicized animal deaths here, including three langur monkeys, two gorillas, a camel, and a marmoset, and they've sparked several investigations into zoo practices, elicited a storm of letters to the editor, and fueled a long-running debate about whether elephants - or, for that matter, other animals - belong behind bars.
For some Chicagoans, meanwhile, the attacks on one of the country's most beloved - and free - zoos has made them jump to its defense.
"We're originally from Atlanta, and the zoo there is pretty shaky - and expensive," says Jacob Smith, a chef enjoying a day off with his fiancée, Elizabeth Quinn. "It looks like they're doing more things here for conservation."
Mr. Smith and Ms. Quinn say they've talked about how their children may never be able to see a tiger unless conservation programs like those at zoos succeed. As for the deaths? "They don't seem very connected."
Even on a recent drizzly Thursday afternoon, the zoo was filled with visitors - school groups, families, Chicagoans who make a habit of strolling through after work. Many say they value the real-life examples of animals the zoo provides for their children, who will probably never see such creatures in the wild.
But some animal-rights groups have used the deaths to rally support for their questioning of zoo practices, in particular the decision to display elephants, which they say need far more space than zoos can provide.
"These are the world's largest land mammals, they roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild, and zoos can't give them that kind of space," says Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals and entertainment issues for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which staged a protest at Lincoln Park last month. "We hate to say, 'We told you so,' but we did warn the zoo before they even took these elephants that it would be a death sentence.... They should be giving them hundreds of acres, not one-third of an acre."
PETA is currently lobbying the Chicago City Council to pass a resolution that would require substantial space - larger than the Lincoln Park Zoo could provide - to exhibit elephants.
Ms. Leahy is troubled by the other deaths as well, and says PETA was contacted by several whistle-blowers at the zoo, alerting the animal-rights group to the death of a camel that they said had been left outside all night, and a baby marmoset that allegedly drowned after an inexperienced keeper forgot to drain a pond in the exhibit.
For Leahy, it's simply reinforced a long-running skepticism about an institution that she feels has outlived its purpose, especially in an age where people can watch wild animals on The Discovery Channel. "Zoos are really just a depressing place," she says. "You go in and see animals deprived of everything that's important to them. "
The institution's defenders see such attacks as both missing zoos' educational purpose and an opportunistic use of the deaths - which, they note, are a fact of nature.
"We need to educate people" about the fact that animals eventually die, says Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA).
She's quick to dismiss the elephant campaign. Zoo research - like how to attach a workable radio collar to an elephant - has contributed to projects in the wild, she says, and simply seeing the gentle behemoths in person is inspiring to many people.
Still, Ms. Ballentine admits the string of deaths is troubling, and the AZA (along with the US Department of Agriculture) is conducting an audit, hoping to discover whether it was mere coincidence or a sign of larger systemic or procedural problems that the zoo needs to fix.
The National Zoo in Washington - one of the nation's few other free zoos - faced a similar outcry two years ago when dozens of animals, including two red pandas that ate rat poison, died. Procedures were changed and the director was replaced in the wake of an investigation.
At Lincoln Park, meanwhile, the zoo's visitors tend to be less interested in the few empty exhibits than in enjoying the many full ones - though they also reflect Americans' growing awareness of animals and how they're treated.
"It'd be nice if his habitat was larger," says Clarissa Cormier, visiting the zoo with her family, as she watches an Afghanistan leopard pace. "When animals walk in circles it makes you wonder if they're happy. But, how else can people like us who can't travel to Australia and Africa get to see them?"
Thalab Alaboodi, a Chicago resident visiting the zoo with his wife and three children, says his family visited Brookfield, Chicago's other zoo, recently and much prefer Lincoln Park. They hadn't been aware of the elephant deaths before today. "We see the space is empty," says his young son, Abrahim, sadly. "I like elephants!"
His father is more reflective: "We'd miss them, of course, " he says, "but maybe the place is too small."
Over by the empty exhibit, Paul Hornschemeier is more up on the news. "It sounds like someone wasn't doing their job," says the Chicago cartoonist, adding that he and his friend, visiting from Germany, had remarked on how many animals - like the sun bear with its tongue hanging out due to jaw surgery - seemed to be sick or injured.
Mr. Hornschemeier has mixed feelings about zoos in general, which the deaths only reinforce. But he can also see their purpose. "Growing up, they gave me an appreciation of what's out there other than cats and dogs," he says. "But the animals definitely need to be cared for."