On July 6, 2019, The Elephant Sanctuary near Hohenwald celebrated Asian elephant Shirley’s 71st birthday and 20th year at The Elephant Sanctuary. At 71 years old, Shirley defies all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity, having lived well beyond the life expectancy for a captive Asian elephant.
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 physical and emotional impact that a life of performance has on captive elephants, 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 and partially sank, leaving Shirley with burns on her back, side, and feet and causing her to lose part of her right ear.
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, 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. Her primary caretaker, Solomon James, accompanied Shirley on her journey to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Her arrival was captured by Argo Films and became part of the documentary, The Urban Elephant.
At The Sanctuary, Shirley had an emotional 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 daughter. The Urban Elephant documented Shirley and Jenny’s explorations together, including Shirley standing guard over Jenny as she took naps in the habitat.
“Shirley has been through so much in her life, it is amazing how quickly she seems to trust people,” said lead Caregiver, Kaitlin. “She emanates love and kindness.”
The Elephant Sanctuary, located 85 miles southwest of Nashville in Hohenwald, provides elephants retired from performance or exhibition with home, herd, and individualized care for life. Although the elephants’ habitats are closed to the public, The Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald offers family-friendly educational experiences and supporters may watch the elephants in their habitats anytime via live-streaming EleCams at www.elephants.com. The Elephant Sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.