Oakland Zoo’s African Elephant, Donna, Moves to New Home at The Elephant Sanctuary

Oakland Zoo
September 15, 2023
Donna at Oakland Zoo (top), Donna first introduction to new companion Flora via fence line at The Elephant Sanctuary (center), Donna at The Elephant Sanctuary with Oakland Zoo Elephant Manager, Gina Kinzley, Oakland Zoo Senior Elephant Keeper Marisa Riordan, and The Elephant Sanctuary staff member (bottom)

Oakland, CA –September 15, 2023…Leaving Oakland Zoo on Monday at 1:30PM, African elephant Donna, age 43, arrived at 6:30AM Wednesday morning to her new permanent home, The Elephant Sanctuary, an AZA-accredited facility in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Accompanied by her care team of five, with a carefully planned route that included pre-determined and scheduled stops to ensure her comfort and wellbeing, Donna had been voluntarily participating in training sessions since May to load into and familiarize herself with the specialized and fully-equipped transport trailer that brought her to the sanctuary where she will again enjoy the companionship of other compatible female elephants after the passings of Lisa, aged 46 (2023) and M’Dunda, aged 50 (2019) at Oakland Zoo.


Donna’s ‘trailer training’ was an amazing and successful all hands-on deck effort by our entire keeper team, and the journey from Oakland to her new home was bittersweet. We will miss her dearly but are grateful for the future years she has ahead and the continued standard of care she will receive,” said Gina Kinzley, Elephant Manager at Oakland Zoo.


Prioritized and focused on the best interest of Donna, the decision to move Donna to The Elephant Sanctuary was made thoughtfully and collaboratively by Nik Dehejia (Oakland Zoo CEO), Colleen Kinzley (VP of Animal Care Conservation& Research), Gina Kinzley (Elephant Manager), and with consideration given to input from many other key advisors and experts within AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums).


At The Elephant Sanctuary, Donna, now in her senior years, will have the opportunity to join a herd of three other compatible, older female African elephants, Flora, Tange, and Sukari, ensuring her the structure of companionship female elephants need, throughout the later stages of her life; and being AZA-accredited, the continuation of receiving the highest standard of veterinary and animal care that she is accustomed to at Oakland Zoo.


Donna is a beloved member of the Oakland Zoo family, and has been, for decades. She will be dearly missed by all of us, and by the generations of our community who have had the opportunity to see her here. The decision to move her saddens us all, but it is a decision that best serves her at this later stage of her life, and her wellbeing, and that takes priority over all else,” said Nik Dehejia, CEO of Oakland Zoo.


Donna came to Oakland Zoo from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in 1990. Upon arrival, she quickly bonded with Lisa, another female three years her senior, and the two elephants grew in their bond over the next three decades, choosing to sleep together in their barn every night. In 2013, Lisa began showing signs of progressive arthritis, and in the past year, leading up to Lisa’s declining quality of life due to compounding and worsening health conditions, Zoo veterinarians and the elephant care team began preparing for the inevitable loss of Lisa and simultaneously began planning for Donna’s future without her lifelong partner.


A search to bring a new compatible female elephant companion to Oakland Zoo for Donna was conducted, from another AZA-accredited facility or rescue situation, and was ultimately unsuccessful. At the same time, the Zoo explored the option of a new home for Donna that would meet her social and animal care needs, finding the ideal placement at The Elephant Sanctuary.  


Female elephants are deeply social with each other and create close, lifelong bonds. Our priority has been to ensure Donna, now the sole female at Oakland Zoo, can live out her life with other compatible females. Moving her to The Elephant Sanctuary will best serve the social needs she needs for her wellbeing, and also provide her the continued excellence of veterinary and animal care that she’s been accustomed to here,” said Colleen Kinzley, VP of Animal Care, Conservation & Research at Oakland Zoo. 


A farewell party for Donna was arranged by her elephant care team back in June, attended by staff, volunteers, and with the public invited as well; presenting her with a large spread of treats, enrichment, and piñatas filled with her favorite fruits. Meanwhile, at The Elephant Sanctuary, preparations were being made for Donna’s upcoming arrival, including an introduction plan for her once she arrived, with Flora, Tange, and Sukari.


"We are honored that our AZA colleagues at Oakland Zoo reached out to The Elephant Sanctuary in making this extremely important decision regarding the continued care and planning for Donna, and happy to announce her safe arrival to Tennessee. We are confident Donna will transition easily to her new home and, with time, build a close bond and share experiences with African female herd mates Flora (age 41), Tange (age 50), and Sukari (age 39)," said Janice Zeitlin, CEO, The Elephant Sanctuary.


Upon arrival Wednesday, the veterinary team at The Elephant Sanctuary, along with Oakland Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Ryan Sadler, conducted a health assessment before Donna was given access to explore part of her new habitat. Today, she was introduced through a protected fence line to the first member of her new herd, Flora. Introductions are managed in a phased integration and Donna will soon have free contact (no separating fence line) with all three of her new companions at the refuge.


Oakland Zoo has been a decades-long advocate for elephants in human care and in the wild.  Supporting several elephant conservation partners in Africa including the long-standing Amboseli Trust for Elephants; and working with the Humane Society of the United States, and PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) sanctuary, Oakland Zoo lobbied for the successful passing of SB 1062 in 2016 to ban the cruel use of bull hooks on elephants in California. Oakland Zoo was also the first AZA-accredited zoo in the U.S.to manage their elephant herd through protected contact, a management method that allows elephants choice in behavior and eliminates their stress during medical procedures or the administering of husbandry treatments.




Oakland Zoo, home to more than 850 native and exotic animals, is managed by the Conservation Society of California (CSC); a non-profit organization leading an informed and inspired community in Taking Action for Wildlife locally and globally. With over 25conservation partners and projects worldwide, the CSC is committed to conservation-based education and saving species and their habitats in the wild. Oakland Zoo is dedicated to the humane treatment of animals and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the national organization that sets the highest standards for animal welfare for zoos and aquariums.



Donna is an African elephant, age 43. She came to Oakland Zoo in 1990 from Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. She stands 9 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 8,870 pounds. Donna has long legs and a slender face. She loves to carry a tire around, and her favorite foods are melons, especially watermelon.



Located on 3,060 acres in Hohenwald, Tennessee, The Elephant Sanctuary is the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically for Asian and African elephants. Founded in 1995, The Sanctuary has provided 32 elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being. The Sanctuary is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and has been dually recognized through certification by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. The Elephant Sanctuary is currently home to 11 elephant residents.  

To learn more about The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, please visit their website at www.elephants.com. We welcome you to stay engaged and observe the elephants via their live-streaming EleCams at www.elephants.com/elecam, and connect with them via social media.