Second oldest elephant in North America, Shirley passes away at age 72


Asian elephant, Shirley, at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (photo credit: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee)

LEWIS COUNTY, Tenn. – The second oldest elephant in North America, an Asian elephant named Shirley has died at age 72.

Shirley retired to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1999. Sanctuary officials said she had spent over two decades as a circus performer and two decades at the Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens in Monroe, LA.

Her caregivers said that at 72 years old, Shirley had defied all odds and was one of the oldest elephants in captivity. She 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 Lived a Remarkable Life

  • 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 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and partially sank, leaving Shirley with burns on her back, side, and feet.
  • 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 in Monroe, Louisiana 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. In 1999, her primary caretaker, Solomon James, accompanied Shirley on her journey to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
  • Upon her arrival at The Elephant Sanctuary, documented by Argo Films for the documentary The Urban Elephant, 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.

The Sanctuary said their care and feterinary teams had been closely monitored Shirley recently and observed changes in her mobility and mentation.

Sanctuary officials said “Shirley passed away peacefully in the early hours of Monday morning, surrounded by her loving caregivers. Afterward, Shirley’s habitat-mates, Sissy and Tarra, were given the opportunity to visit and mourn.”

A necropsy will be performed to help inform the care and treatment of all elephants in captivity.

“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. 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,” said Janice Zeitlin, CEO of The Elephant Sanctuary.

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