What killed Joy the elephant?

Greenville NewsJuly 11, 2014 

A fence now covers the view of where the African elephant exhibit once was at The Greenville Zoo on Thursday, July 10, 2014. Attached to the fence is a photo memorial of Joy, the elephant that passed away in transit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

MYKAL MCELDOWNEY

The trailer in which Joy the elephant died on a Colorado prairie a month ago had no strap to hold her up in case she fell and no camera to allow constant surveillance by zoo employees following in a chase car.

An animal rights group says that amounts to negligence and it may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses the city-owned Greenville Zoo.

Jeff Bullock, the zoo director, said, "That's Monday-morning quarterbacking. Are there things I'd do different? I don't know."

He said he and his staff have talked about whether a camera would have made a difference, but if Joy had fallen in the trailer, they would not have been able to get her up anyway. Joy fell down on her chest somewhere between Amarillo, Texas, and La Junta, Colo., a four-hour drive.

Joy had been at the Greenville Zoo for 37 years when she was transferred June 13 to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to live out the rest of her life. The zoo is phasing out its elephant exhibit due to lack of space. Joy died on June 14 near LaJunta, Colo., during the move.

Ed Stewart, who runs Performing Animal Welfare Society in Galt, Calif., which has 11 elephants and three sanctuaries, said an elephant that falls frontward would suffocate within 30 minutes.

The final report from pathologists at Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is not complete, but the preliminary report based on observation during the procedure did not reveal a cause of death.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman with the USDA, said the federal agency is looking into Joy's death but has not launched an official investigation. Also looking into the death is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos. The Greenville Zoo lost both its elephants in a three-month period this year.

"I'm sure they'll have questions for us," said Bullock. "I told the staff to just tell the truth."

Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the AZA, said he did not want to speculate about what the AZA might or might not do.

The zoo is in the midst of re-accreditation. In fact, the inspectors were in Greenville 10 days after Joy was shipped out.

"It will be up to the accreditation committee if there's any issues or repercussions," Bullock said.

Asked whether the site visit expedited Joy's removal to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Bullock said it did not, although the inspection was easier this year without any elephants. The AZA has over the years systematically raised its standards for keeping elephants. In the 1990s it prohibited zoos from keeping a lone elephant and by 2016 will require that a zoo have at least three.

The new standards — and the fact a proper elephant enclosure should be much bigger than what Greenville has — set about the chain of events that ended with Joy's death on June 14.

Greenville's elephants

There was another Joy before the one who died last month. She lived in a yard where the owl exhibit is and in a barn where the restrooms are now. She died during a medical procedure on a tusk in the 1990s. The community raised funds to replace her, and when the new animal came she was called Joy as well, although her name while she was in Dallas was Joni.

Bullock calls her Joni still.

An African elephant, she was 7 when she came to Greenville in 1977, and she lived alone in that tiny world for two decades. In the 1990s, she was sent to Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia while a new enclosure was built to house her and a companion. Brittany joined her, but the two did not get along. Joy suffered a leg injury during an incident with Brittany, which affected Joy for the rest of her life.

Brittany was sent to the Milwaukee Zoo.

In 2005, the zoo was cited by the AZA for not being aggressive enough in seeking the companion animal, records show. While the zoo did not lose its accreditation, the application was tabled until the zoo made sufficient progress in finding a friend for Joy.

Almost 10 years passed before the Greenville Zoo was able to get Ladybird, a 36-year-old African elephant who had been at Lion Country Safari Wildlife Park in Loxahatchee, Florida, for some time.

From 2006 until March, Joy and Ladybird lived in the enclosure near the zoo entrance. The rock formations are crafted from gunite, the ground is crushed gravel. The barn has a concrete floor.

Stewart said the hardscape can cause elephants to have arthritis and joint disease, which Ladybird suffered from.

Zoo officials here knew in 2012, when they were developing a master plan for improvements over the next 20 years, that they would no longer keep elephants. The proper enclosure for three elephants would take a third of the 14 acres the zoo owns between Cleveland Park and several neighborhoods not far from downtown.

Bullock said he started talking with officials at the Miami Zoo in late 2012 about taking Ladybird and Joy. The zoo there was making improvements to its elephant barn and then had some staff turnover, delaying a visit to Greenville until January of this year. It was 7 degrees and the two 40-plus-year-old elephants weren't getting around too well. The Miami Zoo had some concerns.

Elephants in captivity

Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy with PAWS, said while many zoos are phasing out their elephant programs, there are still 273 captive elephants. Captivity makes elephants seem older than they actually are. In the wild, she said, Joy would have been having babies at her age.

Wild elephants live on average to be 60, captive elephants 40, she said.

"There's no excuse for it," she said. "They're fed daily, vet care, husbandry care, yet they're dying prematurely."

The main reason is lack of space and standing on hard surfaces, she said. Part of her job is to watch the six elephants on PAWS' 80 acres in northern California. They forage for food for 16 to 18 hours a day, walking miles and miles through pastures and woods. They eat leaves from trees and grasses from fields.

The AZA's Vernon said the 66 AZA members accredited to hold elephants provide lifelong, top-notch care.

"Our standards are the best possible," he said.

Asked what he thought about Greenville's elephant exhibit, Bullock said, "We met the minimum standard."

Doyle said PAWS has moved 20 elephants without incident. Last October, three elephants were shipped to PAWS from the Toronto Zoo, which was ending its 40-year elephant program after four elephants died in four years. It took two years to get the animals to PAWS because of a debate about whether they should instead go to an AZA-member facility.

Stewart said to minimize risk, cameras were installed in each of the three trailers for the 70-hour journey.

"One did sit down and they knew immediately," Stewart said.

Melissa Gonzalez said her organization, In Defense of Animals, has requested a lot of information from the Greenville Zoo, including medical records for Joy.

"She should have been monitored every single minute," Gonzalez said. "The Greenville Zoo failed to take necessary precautions."

Stewart started PAWS in 1984 with his partner Pat Derby, who handled the cougars for Lincoln-Mercury. Derby and Stewart were instrumental in getting laws passed that tightened regulations on anyone holding exotic animals in captivity.

Stewart said he doesn't think elephants belong in his facility, in zoos and certainly not in the circus. He doesn't think zoos should be breeding them.

"We can't meet their needs," he said. If there was a reintroduction program ongoing, that would be different.

"Not one elephant from any zoo has gone back into the wild," he said.

The first death

Earlier this year, Ladybird had suffered a bout of colic. Zoo officials said that was caused by a change in the weather. She also suffered from arthritis and joint pain. On March 3, she was found lying down in the barn, and when handlers could not get her to stand, she was euthanized.

"Her body gave out," Bullock said.

The zoo has not received the necropsy report from the Georgia Exotic Animal and Pathology Service, he said.

After Ladybird died, Miami Zoo officials decided they didn't want Joy. They felt Ladybird would have protected the submissive Joy from a dominant cow in their collection.

In the days after Ladybird died, Joy seemed despondent. She piled all her toys up and looked at them. The search for a home for Joy began again in earnest.

"We wanted to get her back with other elephants," Bullock said.

They looked seriously at five places: Lee Richardson in Kansas; the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee; the National Elephant Center, a holding facility for AZA zoos near Orlando; Virginia Zoo in Norfolk; and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The Tennessee facility, which covers 2,700 acres including 300 acres specifically for the 14 African elephants it has, was ruled out because the animals roam free and Bullock was concerned Joy's eye condition could not be monitored regularly. At the Orlando facility, elephants come and go, meaning Joy would not be part of a permanent herd.

Cheyenne Mountain and Virginia were the finalists. Bullock said Cheyenne Mountain was selected because it is specializing in non-breeding females, making Joy a good match.

A plan evolves

For about two months zoo officials here worked on the plan to transport Joy to Colorado. The five-page document sets out the responsibilities of both zoos. Greenville was responsible for testing, training Joy for shipment and securing the transporter.

Bullock chose Ed Novack of Animal Exchange in Cairo, New York, to handle the work. Bullock first worked with him in 1988 when Bullock was zookeeper at the Jacksonville (Florida) Zoo. The Jacksonville elephant was the first elephant Bullock ever moved.

Novack, who as many animal haulers once did, used to obtain animals from zoos and sell them to people who keep exotic animals, has moved thousands of animals during a 40-year career, Bullock said.

Two routes were identified. Novack picked the southern route: Asheville, west on Interstate 40 to Nashville to Memphis, where they would spend the night. The next day the plan was to travel to Amarillo then north to Colorado Springs. It is a fairly straight route along the southern part of the country. It's about 200 miles and 2½ hours longer than the other route, which goes through St. Louis and Kansas City.

"I was paying closer attention to storm patterns," Bullock said. He was concerned about the caravan getting caught up in the Midwest's frequent summer storms.

Novack could not be reached for comment.

Novack arrived in Greenville on June 12. Loading started at 6:30 a.m. behind the elephant barn. Joy was to be pulled with ropes tied to her legs into a restraint chute and then loaded onto the trailer. Joy's feet were secured and four people, including Bullock on a hind leg, attempted to get her into the chute.

Joy and Ladybird had had training in the chute for a couple of years, Bullock said, but on that Friday the 13th Joy was having none of it. She managed to shake out of the hook. They tried again and again. Dr. Heather Miller, the zoo veterinarian and deputy director, gave her a sedative. Finally, more than five hours later, they got Joy loaded into the chute.

Then she was pulled into the trailer with a winch. The trailer was fortified to hold her 8,000 pounds and to keep her securely in place. Christine Dear, her longtime handler, was encouraging her with every step. Once loaded, her legs were chained to the trailer, which is common practice when moving an elephant, Stewart said.

"Anytime you move an elephant, it can be a risky thing, and you have to minimize the risk. You build in things to make it safer," Stewart said. A camera, something to lift her if she falls.

There was air conditioning available, but Novack, Miller and Dear, the zoo's elephant manager, determined it was not needed. It was 85 degrees when they pulled out of Greenville around 2:15 p.m. Miller and Dear followed in a rented SUV loaded with two weeks' worth of grain to ensure Joy's digestive system was not disrupted by a different sort of food.

That night someplace around Memphis, Novack spent the night with Joy in the trailer. Joy was fed watermelons and cantaloupe in addition to her usual hay and water, Bullock said.

They left at about 7 the next morning. Bullock said they stopped every four hours to check on Joy, and at every stop she appeared to be doing fine. She was eating and drinking.

At Amarillo, where Novack checked in on Facebook at 6:32 p.m. at the Big Texan, a well-known steakhouse, Joy again seemed fine, although she didn't eat, Bullock said.

It was about 90 degrees when they stopped in Amarillo and again the temperature inside the trailer was checked and determined to be comfortable for Joy, Bullock said. Turning on air conditioning in a trailer like that has its own risks, Bullock said, most especially carbon dioxide buildup.

They stopped at a truck stop near La Junta, a small southern town on the high plains, at about 9 p.m. local time. That would be 11 in Greenville. They opened the side door as they had done many times before. Joy was on the floor. Miller checked for a pulse. None.

Dear called Bullock. She was crying. Miller called someone at Cheyenne Mountain. The caravan continued on. This time driving past Colorado Springs on to Fort Collins and the lab.

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