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By: The Elephant Sanctuary

Asian Elephant Shirley Turns 72 at The Elephant Sanctuary


On July 6, 2020, The Elephant Sanctuary celebrates Asian elephant Shirley’s 72nd birthday and 21st year at The Sanctuary.

At 72 years old, Shirley defies all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity and has lived well beyond the life expectancy for a captive Asian elephant. Shirley is the oldest elephant at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and holds the record for the third oldest elephant in North America.

Born in Sumatra in 1948, Shirley was captured from the wild and sold to a traveling circus, entertaining audiences for more than 20 years. In addition to the immense physical and emotional impact that a life of performance has on captive elephants, during her time in the circus, Shirley survived capture by Fidel Castro’s forces as well as a highway accident that killed two other elephants. In 1963, the circus ship Shirley was traveling on caught fire and partially sank, leaving Shirley with burns on her back, side, and feet and causing her to lose part of her right ear.

In 1974, Shirley suffered a broken leg during an altercation with another elephant. As a result of her injury, in 1977, she was transferred to The Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens, where she was the sole elephant resident for 22 years. As Shirley aged, the zoo staff decided she needed more space and the companionship of other elephants. Her primary caretaker, Solomon James, accompanied Shirley on her journey to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Her arrival and emotional reunion with another Asian elephant, Jenny was captured by Argo Films and became part of the documentary, The Urban Elephant. It was later discovered that Shirley and Jenny had performed together in the circus 24 years earlier. For the next seven years, Shirley and Jenny were inseparable in a relationship resembling one of a mother and daughter.

Solomon James returned to The Sanctuary in 2018 to visit Shirley on her 70th birthday.

"Shirley teaches everyone who cares for her patience and resilience. I am in awe of her every day! Knowing only the parts we do of her experiences in life before Sanctuary, it is a true testament to Shirley's spirit that she lives her life with such an independent, trusting, and loving nature. She will always be in the softest part of my heart!" – Asia Barn Caregiver, Sarah F.

For her 72nd birthday, Caregivers surprised Shirley with a strawberry-topped vegan cake and an array of watermelon wedges, rice paper balloons, and banana leaves. They also included hay bales, bamboo, a birthday banner with natural tempera paint, and of course, her favorite — bananas! Shirley chose to eat the watermelon and banana leaves first, before devouring her cake in one bite (and saving some icing on her trunk for later). She tossed the hay bales in the air and on her back and lastly, savored her bamboo.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, located 85 miles southwest of Nashville in Hohenwald, Tenn., provides elephants retired from performance or exhibition with home, herd, and individualized care for life. Although the elephants’ habitats are closed to the public, The Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald offers family-friendly educational experiences and supporters may watch the elephants in their habitats anytime via live-streaming EleCams at www.elephants.com. The Elephant Sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

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