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70 Years Old and Thriving in Sanctuary – Let’s Help More Elephants!

70 Years Old and Thriving in Sanctuary – Let’s Help More Elephants!

Shirley is an Asian elephant who just turned 70 years old and she has been thriving at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee for nearly 20 years.  However, Shirley has a past that reads like a harrowing and heartbreaking adventure novel.

Shirley was born in Sumatra, Indonesia in 1948, only to be captured at age 5 and sold into the traveling circus world in the USA. She has survived not only two decades of brutal circus performing, but also a boat fire on a sinking ship in which she was badly burned, a broken leg from a negative encounter with another elephant that never healed correctly, and 22 years as the solitary elephant at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana.

At age 51, in a glorious turn of events, the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo decided that Shirley should go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee to receive the care and social opportunities that she needed. Shirley was greeted at the sanctuary with rolling hills to roam freely, trees, ponds, spring fed lakes, pastures, and lush browse. Amazingly, she was also reunited with Jenny, an elephant who she had been in a circus with 24 years earlier who had fortunately come to the Sanctuary three years earlier. When the two met again, they recognized each other immediately and there was a profoundly emotional reunion for the two elephants. They had seven joy filled and inseparable years together before Jenny’s death in 2006. 

The life expectancy for Asian elephants in captivity is 42, but quality of life is as important as quantity.  Shirley is a testament to the healing that can happen for elephants when they are given the real chance to be elephants after years of abuse and exploitation. Roaming freely throughout abundant habitat, making their own choices, forming and keeping deep social bonds, and having their dignity returned and restored to them changes everything. Shirley’s story is indeed a happy ending, but the ratio of captives to sanctuary residents is still altogether too high.

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