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By: The Elephant Sanctuary
From: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Remembering Shirley

The Elephant Sanctuary announces the passing of Asian elephant, Shirley, age 72.


The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Asian elephant Shirley at age 72.
The Sanctuary family celebrates our memories of Shirley’s wisdom, strength, and perseverance. She demonstrated to us all that it is possible to trust, to heal, and to love again after enduring many decades of hardship.

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.

Shirley (left) on Fleurus Circus Ship in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (1963)
Shirley (center) Hartford, CT Shrine Circus (1967)

Shirley and Jenny at The Sanctuary (1999)

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 hardship of a life in performance, 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.

When she arrived at The Sanctuary in 1999, Shirley had a loud and joyous reunion with another Asian elephant, Jenny—nearly bending the bars of their barn stalls to be near to one another. It was later discovered that the two 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 calf. A PBS documentary, The Urban Elephant, documented Shirley and Jenny’s explorations together, including Shirley standing guard over Jenny as she took naps in the habitat.

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

During her time at The Sanctuary, Shirley emerged as the matriarch of the Asia herd, a leadership role reserved for the most respected and admired elephant in the group. A short time after Jenny’s passing in 2006, Shirley began to develop closer bonds with her other herd-mates — Tarra, Sissy, Winkie, and Misty.

Shirley and Sissy at The Sanctuary

Shirley and Tarra at The Sanctuary

Each year at the first signs of warming weather, Shirley would be the first elephant to make the miles-long trek to The Sanctuary’s 25-acre lake, a signal to Care Staff and other elephants that spring had arrived. In recent years, Sissy and Tarra often joined her in this adventure.

As Shirley aged, we recognized greater susceptibility to many of the issues that face aging, captive elephants. Years of traveling, performing, and standing on hard surfaces contributed to arthritis and chronic foot issues. She was monitored closely due to her known TB exposure from her history as a traveling, performing elephant and her closeness to an elephant previously owned by the Hawthorn Corporation, who experienced widespread TB exposure at their corporate facility between 1992-1993.

Shirley’s individual care plan included specialized foot soaks and treatments, daily arthritis supplements, anti-inflammatory medications, and multi-wavelength cold laser therapy to reduce discomfort associated with her long-ago broken leg, arthritis, and other joint conditions. Sunscreen and botanica cream were applied regularly to help prevent and treat sunburn that had begun to affect Shirley more as her skin thinned with age.

Saying Goodbye

The Sanctuary’s Care and Veterinary teams have been closely monitoring Shirley over the past several weeks, as they began to observe gradual changes in her mobility and mentation. At 72-years-old, Shirley continued to impress us all with her resiliency and zest for life. Many mornings when Staff arrived at the barn, Shirley appeared bright, alert, and responsive, but into the afternoon would show increased signs of weakness, fatigue, and discomfort. Veterinary and Husbandry staff worked around the clock to ensure best-care and comfort — physically checking in on Shirley at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., in addition to barn camera checks throughout the night.

Shirley by The Sanctuary's 25-acre lake
Shirley at The Sanctuary

Care Staff doted on Shirley daily, and Shirley seemed to seek increased affection in these final weeks. Long-time Caregiver, Sarah F. often sang to Shirley in the barn, Shirley listening with rapt attention. And Care Staff made every effort to ensure that everything was done exactly to Shirley’s liking — which was quite particular. Shirley would present her feet for foot care in a particular sequence, and never out of order. Jelly beans, a favorite treat, were offered with regularity recently. Knowing that Shirley loved all but the licorice-flavored beans, Staff would carefully pick them out from the bunch.

On Sunday, Shirley had been alert and participating in her care all day, and was eating and drinking. Shortly after night feed at 10 p.m., Shirley laid down in the barn. Veterinary and Husbandry staff were alerted, and when they arrived a short time later, Shirley was recumbent, her breathing shallow, and she showed no interest in getting up. All indications were that her legs would not support her standing or moving. Everyone agreed that, as always, Shirley was communicating her needs and wishes — that her time had come. Medications were given for comfort and to ease the transition. Shirley passed away peacefully in the early hours of Monday morning, surrounded by her loving Caregivers. Afterward, Sissy visited Shirley briefly and Tarra spent nearly four hours in the early morning, quietly by Shirley’s side.

As is customary for all elephants who pass away at The Elephant Sanctuary, a necropsy will be performed to help inform the care and treatment of all elephants in captivity. The Sanctuary will share information from the findings of the necropsy as soon as they become available.

“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. Share your favorite Shirley memory or leave a tribute below or email it directly to kate@elephants.com. To make a gift in honor of Shirley's memory, please visit shop.elephants.com/give.

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