Remembering Winkie

The Elephant Sanctuary announces the passing of Asian elephant Winkie, age 51.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Asian elephant Winkie at age 51. The Sanctuary family remembers Winkie’s jubilant nature and will be forever moved by the loving bond between her and her closest companion, Sissy.

“Winkie was one of the most affectionate, playful, and silly elephants I have had the privilege of getting to know,” said Kaitlin S., Asia Habitat’s Lead Caregiver. “She loved her herd-mate Sissy more than anything in the world, always standing near her while she napped, running to her side if she ever got excited or upset, swimming with her in the pond, and grazing with her wherever she went in the habitat. Winkie will forever hold a very special place in my heart and will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”

Winkie was born in Myanmar in 1966. When she was still a calf, she was captured and sold into the exotic animal trade, which took her to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI where she lived for more than 30 years.

In September 2000, Winkie became The Sanctuary’s 7th resident, arriving just a few months after Sissy. Both elephants came to The Sanctuary with a reputation of being anti-social and unable to get along well with other elephants, but they seemed to be a perfect fit for one another—spending nearly all their time together exploring the Asia Habitat—most frequently seen walking the “2nd Pipeline” area or at “Dr. Scott’s Pond.”

Sissy and Winkie

This past year, Sissy and Winkie split most of their time between Asia Habitat’s new Warming Hut and “2nd Pipeline.” Caregivers observed them expressing excitement in the early mornings before feeding, with Sissy making her signature trunk popping noises, and Winkie attempting to mimic Sissy. At the beginning of fall, Tarra chose to join Winkie and Sissy on many of their adventures to the Warming Hut, where Winkie often stashed rocks and fruit peels. Caregivers enjoyed watching Winkie peel an orange before eating it, when given the fruit as a reward or treat.

Winkie and Sissy

In 2006, Winkie was involved in an incident at The Sanctuary that resulted in the death of a caregiver. While it isn’t known exactly what triggered the incident, the tragedy made clear the unpredictable and complex nature of elephants. Following the incident, The Sanctuary converted to Protected Contact (PC) management. This means that there is always a physical barrier between human and elephant, when interaction is necessary. Winkie transitioned well to Protected Contact management—benefitting from the security that a physical barrier and positive reinforcement can bring to the elephants.

As reported earlier this year (see EleNote), Winkie began to show signs of several chronic, progressive health conditions common to aging, captive elephants, including kidney disease, anemia, osteoarthritis, foot abscesses, and known exposure to tuberculosis. She also tested positive for several severe food allergies.

Veterinary and Husbandry teams modified Winkie’s individualized care plan to address the changes to her health and consulted with a well-respected veterinary nutritionist to assist in developing a diet tailor-made to best suit her needs and palate. Winkie responded with increased appetite and moderate weight gain. Care staff reported that while her activity slowed somewhat, she continued to explore her habitat and participate in daily activities.

By regulatory standards, all captive elephants must be monitored for the presence of active TB by an annual trunk-wash test. In addition to these minimum standards, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, in collaboration with state regulatory agencies, also performs monitoring more frequently than current recommendations. In 2014, Sissy and Winkie were both shown to be TB-reactive on a serological blood test; meaning, at some point in their past lives, they were exposed to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes the illness of tuberculosis. Their 2014 trunk wash tests were negative. They both received a nine-month multi-drug preventative antibiotic regimen. 

In February, Winkie’s routine serology screening showed an increased reactivity indicating a potential change in disease status. Protocols were immediately implemented in order to protect other elephants as well as human Caregivers. The last week of April 2017, active tuberculosis infection in Winkie was confirmed via a positive trunk wash culture submitted to an outside laboratory.

Additional blood and urine tests also confirmed progressive kidney disease. Medications were added to stimulate her appetite and maintain her overall comfort. Care staff increased oral fluid therapy with water and electrolyte enhanced water and offers of bananas and onions, new favorites of Winkie’s.

Sissy and Winkie

Final Days

The progression of Winkie’s chronic conditions rapidly led to signs of increasing weakness and discomfort. Veterinary and Husbandry staff worked around the clock to update her diet and medication regimen to manage discomfort associated with a decrease in kidney function, however, there continued to be a visible decline in her overall health and quality of life. Winkie’s Caregivers reported her loss of interest in food and water and a further decrease in activity. The decision was then made to humanely euthanize—Winkie passed peacefully on May 11, 2017 surrounded by those who cared for and loved her. Sissy was given an opportunity to visit her body.

As is customary for all elephants who pass away at The Elephant Sanctuary, a necropsy was performed. Dr. Nicole Gottdenker, along with her team from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Pathology joined The Sanctuary’s Veterinarians, Dr. Steven Scott and Dr. Lydia Young to perform the necropsy. “Preliminary findings in Winkie’s necropsy indicate her rapid decline was due to progressive and irreversible renal disease, compounded by other chronic, progressive conditions,” reported Dr. Steve Scott, DVM, Director of Veterinary Care at The Elephant Sanctuary. Necropsy findings help inform the care and treatment of elephants in captivity. A final necropsy report is pending.

The Sanctuary is home to elephants retired from performance and exhibition, most of whom have a history of behavioral and chronic health issues requiring special individualized care. We are dedicated to meeting the elephants’ day-to-day care, as well as their changing health and special needs, including hospice and end of life care. We thank our many supporters who partner with us to make this all possible.

“The loss of Winkie is deeply felt by her Sanctuary family,” said Janice Zeitlin, CEO. “We are honored to have had the opportunity to care for Winkie for 17 years and provide her final home. Winkie’s continued transformation at The Sanctuary into a more social elephant is a testament to the incredible resiliency of captive animals when they’re given freedom of choice, the companionship of other elephants, and an expansive natural habitat to explore.”

If you wish to leave a tribute for Winkie, you may do so below.

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