For so long, Joy was the first animal visitors saw at the Greenville Zoo.
The 44-year-old African elephant has been a beloved mascot, a gentle soul with a prolific sweet tooth.
It is understandable, then, that the news of Joy’s move to a new home in Colorado Springs, Colo., some 1,500 miles away was bittersweet.
Joy, Greenville’s last remaining elephant, will be going to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, officials said Thursday, where she will spend her days with four other mature female African elephants in an exhibit designed especially for aging animals.
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The move comes after the death of Joy’s companion, Ladybird, who was euthanized when she was found lying down in the barn, too weak to stand.
Since future Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards will require three elephants and Greenville’s exhibit is too small, Joy, who keepers call Joni, had to be moved, said zoo director Jeff Bullock.
“Elephants are very social animals, and with Ladybird’s passing, the search for a new home for Joni became even more critical,” Bullock said.
The search was extensive. A questionnaire was sent to five facilities across the country, followed by telephone interviews. The field then was narrowed down to two contenders, and each flew representatives out to Greenville to meet Joni to see if they could provide for her needs.
At 44, Joy’s age is that of a great-grandmother, said Cheyenne Mountain Zoo president Bob Chastain, and she suffers from an old leg injury she got from a circus elephant in the 1990s.
Cheyenne, spread out on 140 acres near the foot of the Southern Rockies, stood out because of its program for maturing elephants, Bullock said.
Joy will be able to enjoy her stay at the new Encounter Africa exhibit, which boasts mud wallows, a scratching tree and a 20-foot waterfall where elephants can bathe in a cascade of water. She will also get regular exercise with the zoo’s yoga program.
A move date hasn’t been set, though the Friends of the Greenville Zoo have planned a farewell “Life is Joyful” celebration June 5-8. Events include Joy’s famed “paintings,” in which she steps in paint, then onto canvas.
The zoo’s veterinarian and elephant manager will accompany Joy during transport and stay on for a few days to help with the acclimation.
“Transporting any animal has inherent risks, especially for an 8,000-pound elephant,” Chastain said. “We have taken the risks into account, but the benefits of having Joni live out her years here, versus living alone, outweigh those.”
The enclosure where so many visitors watched Joy paint for peanuts and play with her tire will eventually be replaced with a three-story tropical exhibit, according to the zoo’s master plan.
Until then, staffers are working with the Friends group to see what could go into the space as well as a permanent feature to honor Ladybird and Joy, who may find her own joy in Colorado.