Shirley The Elephant Dead At 72

Feb 23, 2021

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee  announces the passing of Asian Elephant Shirley, age 72. Shirley retired to the sanctuary in 1999 after spending 24 years in the circus and another 22 years as the sole elephant on exhibition at the Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens in Monroe, LA. At 72 years old, Shirley defied all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity and 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's retirement to The Elephant Sanctuary was made possible by the kindness and love for her from the Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens and the greater Monroe community. The Sanctuary would like to thank the zoo staff, supporters, and of course, Shirley's companion Solomon, for all that they did to give Shirley the best life possible in Monroe and at The Sanctuary."  - Todd Montgomery, Outreach Manager at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

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.

Saying Goodbye

The Sanctuary’s Care and Veterinary teams have been closely monitoring Shirley over the past several weeks, as they began to observe gradual changes in her mobility and mentation. Veterinary and Husbandry staff worked around the clock to ensure best-care and comfort — checking in on Shirley at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., in addition to barn camera checks throughout the night. 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.

As is customary for all elephants who pass away at The Elephant Sanctuary, 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.