Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dallas Zoo's elephant KeKe dies

09:57 PM CDT on Monday, May 12, 2008
By JOANNA CATTANACH / The Dallas Morning News

KeKe, a 39-year-old African elephant, was euthanized Monday afternoon at the Dallas Zoo after suffering from intestinal problems.

The animal's death marks the zoo's third significant loss in less than a year. Boris, the zoo's only lion, died last month. Hildy, who was the world's oldest giraffe, died in September.
"It's part of the reality with dealing with the aged population we have here," said Gregg Hudson, the zoo's executive director. Last week, the zoo celebrated the 55th birthday of Jenny, the oldest captive gorilla in the world.

"The circle of life goes on here everyday."

KeKe's death calls into question the future of the zoo's other elephant, Jenny, 31. Zoo officials said they do not expect to keep her by herself long-term, because elephants are herding animals that seek companionship. They said they do not know yet whether she will be transferred, or another elephant brought in.

KeKe, a beloved and popular resident of the zoo since 2003, had a fondness for eating rocks and dirt, said Sean Greene, the zoo's community relations director.

"Just about every year we go through a bout of colic with KeKe," Mr. Greene said.

KeKe had been suffering from a severe case of intestinal colic for over a week. Her illness became critical Monday morning, when staff found her laying down. Zoo officials closed the elephant exhibit to minimize stress as they tended to 8,000 pound KeKe.

Her size prevented veterinarians from using sonograms or x-rays. A crane was brought in to help lift her. When KeKe didn't stand on her own, zoo officials made the decision to euthanize her.

African elephants kept in zoos have an average life expectancy of 33.

The loss was especially emotional for the handlers and staff involved in KeKe's round-the-clock care for the past 12 days.

"They're devastated," said Mr. Greene, fighting back tears. But, he said, they can take "real comfort in knowing that we did everything that we possibly could." Mr. Greene said the staff administered fluids, including mineral oils and pureed bananas and strawberries to help the elephant recover. They also consulted with outside experts. Since KeKe transferred to Dallas from the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler in 2003, she and Jenny established a tight bond. Even on their first meeting, the two displayed "excellent elephant manners" trumpeting at one another and stroking with their trunks as gestures of welcome, said Chuck Siegel, the zoo's deputy director of animal management.

KeKe's death is another blow to the zoo's planned African savannah exhibit. Three of the zoo's iconic African animals ­ a main attraction for visitors ­ are dead.

"It's a challenging time but we still have a lot of great things to offer," said Mr. Greene. The zoo still has one elephant as well as other giraffes. At this point, the zoo has approximately 10 acres that will form the exhibit and a fundraising consultant has been hired. "At the end of the month, the board of directors will talk about the next steps," Mr. Greene said.

He said the zoo has made $14 million in improvements over the last three years, and can get new animals for the exhibit.

Mr. Greene said the recent deaths will not deter the zoo's plans for growth. "We're committed to having outstanding exhibits here at the Dallas Zoo."

KeKe's death was the area's second elephant loss in the past year. Babe, a 40-year-old Asian elephant at the Fort Worth Zoo, died in January from labor-related complications. Her unborn calf also died.