Third oldest elephant in North America, Shirley turns 70 
at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Media Contact: Kate Mason

On July 6, 2018, The Elephant Sanctuary celebrates Asian elephant Shirley’s 70th birthday. While the average lifespan of captive elephants is 42 years for Asians and 47 years for Africans, The Sanctuary’s 11 resident elephants currently range in age from 35 to 70. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is now home to five elephants 50 and older. Sissy is 50; Minnie and Ronnie are 52; Billie is 55.

Shirley has an incredible life story. 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 was captured by Argo Films and became part of the documentary, The Urban Elephant.

At The Sanctuary, Shirley had an emotional 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 daughter. The Urban Elephant documented Shirley and Jenny’s explorations together, including Shirley standing guard over Jenny as she took naps in the habitat.

“Shirley has been through so much in her life, it is amazing how quickly she seems to trust people,” said lead Caregiver, Kaitlin. “She emanates love and kindness.”

To celebrate Shirley’s milestone 70th birthday, Caregivers are creating an elephant-sized ‘70’ out of edible materials—bamboo, strung with fresh flowers and produce. The Sanctuary is also asking Shirley fans the world over to post their birthday wishes to Shirley (card, video, song, poem, etc.) on social media using the hashtag #ShirleyTurns70. Since launching the campaign, The Sanctuary has received hundreds of submissions from all over the country. On Shirley’s birthday, The Sanctuary staff will select five of their favorite submissions to receive a Shirley Gift Bag, including a Shirley T-shirt and other Elephant Sanctuary merchandise.

The Elephant Discovery Center will be hosting a family-friendly Caregiver Chat with Shirley’s elephant Caregivers on Saturday, July 14th. Audience members will have a chance to ask questions and learn first-hand what is involved in caring for an elephant. The Discovery Center is located at 27 E Main St, Hohenwald, Tennessee 38462 and will also be open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. for drop-in visitors. There will be no elephants on display at The Discovery Center.

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