July 25, 2014

Why Joy the elephant died is still a mystery

Pathologists performing a necropsy on Joy, the longtime Greenville Zoo elephant who died on her way to a new home in Colorado, didn’t find a cause of death.

Pathologists performing a necropsy on Joy, the longtime Greenville Zoo elephant who died on her way to a new home in Colorado, didn’t find a cause of death.

Bob Chastain, the president and chief executive officer of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, said in a statement released by the Greenville Zoo that the report tells more about what didn’t cause her death than what did.

“They don’t know exactly what happened, but they believe she passed away quickly and suddenly, as there was no evidence of struggling or trauma,” Chastain said in an email to Jeff Bullock, director of the Greenville Zoo.

Joy, also known as Joni, fell down on her chest inside a trailer somewhere between Amarillo, Texas, and La Junta, Colorado, on June 14.

She had been loaded on the trailer in Greenville the day before and spent the night near Memphis. Accompanying her in a chase car were the Greenville Zoo’s veterinarian and deputy director Heather Miller and longtime handler Christine Dear. The transporter was Ed Novack of Animal Exchange in Cairo, New York.

Miller said it isn’t unusual for pathologists to be unable to find a cause of death for an animal.

She said although the necropsy didn’t find a cause of death, the report brings closure to her. She was the one who found Joy dead in the trailer.

“We had the best of intentions,” Miller said. “The outcome was not what anybody wanted. We did everything that we could.”

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a private institution and therefore not required to provide a copy of the actual report. Joy became the property of Cheyenne Mountain when she was loaded on the trailer.

Chastain said in his email to Bullock that the pathology report confirmed that there were no significant pre-existing conditions missed during the many tests done on Joy before she was shipped.

An African elephant, Joy was 7 when she came to Greenville in 1977 and she lived alone in a tiny enclosure. The exhibit was expanded when Association of Zoos and Aquarium rules changed to require two elephants.

Ever since 2012, when the Greenville Zoo adopted a master plan for the next two decades, zoo officials knew they would be closing the elephant exhibit, which was a decades-long feature at the 14-acre park near downtown.

Continuing to have an elephant exhibit would have taken more land than the Greenville Zoo had, Bullock said. Plus, the rules had been changed to require three elephants.

Joy’s move was expedited when her longtime companion, Ladybird, died in March. Joy was morose, piling her toys up and staring at them and not moving around much.

Cheyenne Mountain was chosen because it specializes in geriatric elephants.

Also on Thursday, Bullock released the results of the necropsy on Ladybird. She was found by the University of Georgia’s Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service at the College of Veterinary Medicine to have severe heart disease and thickening of the large arteries, specifically the aorta.

The disease prevented her heart from contracting normally, the report states. She also had fibrosis of a tendon in the left front leg and lipofuscin, or pigment, accumulation in the brain. Miller said that is common in older elephants. Ladybird was 44.

Ladybird had been at the Greenville Zoo for eight years. Miller said she started noticing Ladybird was lethargic during the winter and was weak. She wasn’t interested in exercise or doing much of anything.

Bullock said the zoo does necropsies on every animal that dies. One reason is to be sure there was nothing present that could harm the rest of the collection.

He said Joy’s death has been especially hard on the staff.

“She was part of the family,” he said.

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