Shirley was born in 1948. At age five, she was captured from the wilds of Asia and purchased by Dori Miller, owner of Carson and Barnes and Kelly Miller Circuses. In 1958, while the Kelly-Miller circus was traveling through Cuba, Fidel Castro seized power. Shirley and the entire circus was held captive by Castro’s forces for several weeks before finally being released.
In 1963, the circus traveled by ship to Nova Scotia and was docked at Yarmouth Harbor when a fire broke out in the engine room. This incident caused the ship to sink, killing two animals. Shirley was rescued, but not before sustaining severe burns on her back and legs. Today she is missing a large section of her right ear as result of the fire and has several scars on her back, side, and feet.
At the age of 27, while traveling with the Lewis Brothers Circus, Shirley's right hind leg was broken during an altercation with another elephant. As it healed, several bones in her leg fused together, creating an abnormal angle and shape. After two more years performing in the circus, Shirley was sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, LA. She was the sole elephant at the zoo for 22 years.
On July 6, 1999, Shirley became the fourth resident of The Elephant Sanctuary, joining Tarra, Jenny, and Barbara. At The Sanctuary, Shirley experienced a very loving reunion with Jenny. Research showed the two elephants had been in the same circus 23 years earlier! This memorable event is the subject of an Emmy-winning National Geographic documentary “The Urban Elephant.”
For the next seven years, the two elephants were inseparable in a relationship resembling one of a mother and daughter. During this time, Shirley also emerged as the matriarch of the “Founding Herd,” a leadership role reserved for the most respected and admired elephant in the group. Jenny died in 2006. After a short time, Shirley was seen spending time with Tarra, and also with Winkie and Sissy.
Much like at an assisted living facility, at The Sanctuary, comfort, choice, and independence are tantamount to quality of life. Individualized care from a professional team of Veterinarians and Caregivers has allowed Shirley to age gracefully in a natural habitat setting and make choices about her daily life.
Shirley passed away peacefully on February 22, 2021 at age 72. Shirley defied all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity and lived well beyond the life expectancy for a captive Asian elephant. Shirley was The Sanctuary’s oldest elephant and, at the time of her passing, held the record for the second oldest elephant in North America.
“The Sanctuary is deeply honored to have provided care for Shirley for 21 years. We thank Shirley’s many supporters, fans, and friends who have shared her story, who have loved her from afar, and who have partnered with us through the years to provide lifetime care and the opportunity for Shirley to know true companionship with other elephants,” said Janice Zeitlin, CEO. “We learned so much about the dignity and grace of elephants aging in captivity through caring for Shirley, and we will continue to apply this knowledge to help care for all current and future residents. Shirley leaves an enduring legacy marked by a truly remarkable life, and she will be deeply missed by all.”
Please join us in celebrating Shirley and her long and courageous life.