Death hastens closure of Greenville Zoo elephant exhibit

Greenville NewsMarch 5, 2014 

LadyBird, shown here with Lee Sims, arrived at the Greenville Zoo in 2006.

HEIDI HEILBRUNN — Greenville News

The death of Ladybird, one of the Greenville Zoo’s African elephants, late Monday night leaves behind a four-ton sized hole, not only in the hearts of those who loved and cared for her, but also in the elephant exhibit itself, which will now hasten to its closure.

The Greenville Zoo announced Tuesday that Ladybird was found lying down in the elephant barn Monday afternoon. Zoo staff attempted to help the weak Ladybird stand but were unsuccessful.

It was determined in the late-night hours that the aging pachyderm should be euthanized, said Dr. Heather Miller, a veterinarian and the zoo’s deputy administrator for animal health.

“It’s always a hard decision to make,” Miller said. “With her age and she was weak, we felt like it was the best decision and the only decision we could make. We didn’t want her to suffer.”

Miller said that watching Ladybird interacting with Joy, the zoo’s other African elephant, in the paddock over the last few months, it was easy to forget that she was quite old, years beyond the 37.9-year life expectancy of African elephants in captivity.

“Over the last month or so, she’s been having some age-related medical issues that we’ve been monitoring, and we’ve been treating her with some supportive care,” Miller said.

Zoo staff identified Ladybird as 43 years old. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ 2011 African elephant studbook listed her approximate birthdate as Oct. 1971, making her 42, but the book acknowledges guesswork on birthdates for wild-born animals.

Last elephant standing

Ladybird was caught in the wild in early 1972 and spent most of her life at a safari park in Loxahatchee, Fla., according to the studbook records. She joined the Greenville Zoo in the summer of 2006 as a companion for Joy, a 43-year-old African elephant who now remains alone at the Greenville Zoo.

Current Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards for maintaining elephants require no fewer than two elephants at a time. That standard is changing to three elephants in 2016, said Greenville Zoo director Jeff Bullock.

The zoo’s master plan, created in 2012, had already slated the removal of the elephant exhibit over the next few years. That process will now be expedited, and Joy will be found a suitable home elsewhere with the help of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan, Bullock said.

“Our goal originally was to move them out together,” he said. “We’ll probably want to move her sooner than later because they are social animals. She will do better in a group of animals than she would by herself.”

It’s common for elephants to exhibit signs of mourning, and zoo staff have been keeping an eye on Joy in the hours following Ladybird’s death.

“Joy was nervous last night and through this morning,” Bullock said Tuesday, and staff are giving her extra attention.

Zoo staff said Ladybird will be sorely missed by the zoo and Greenville community.

Miller called Ladybird an “education ambassador,” one of the first stops for most visitors to the zoo and a beloved favorite among staff.

Ladybird’s body was sent via truck to the University of Georgia’s Exotic Animal and Pathology Service for a necropsy, a customary procedure for any animal that passes away at the zoo. Test results will be available in two to three weeks.

Ladybird will be cremated at the Georgia facility, Bullock said.

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