Topeka Zoo officials should know by the end of the month what caused Shannon, a 35-year-old elephant, to die last week, and the zoo anticipates the U.S. Department of Agriculture will inspect the elephant program sometime in January, director Brendan Wiley said.
The zoo this week also implemented a remote video system to better track the elephants. The move came as a California-based animal welfare organization said the Topeka Zoo was negligent for not monitoring the elephant after she was found down on the ground for several hours. The group demanded remaining elephants be removed and called for the zoo’s accreditation to be revoked.
Shannon, a 5,500 pound African elephant, died Dec. 11 after spending about 20 hours on the ground over a two-day span. When she was found on the ground Dec. 10, a team lifted Shannon using a recently developed Down Elephant Protocol, which Wiley said to his knowledge hadn’t been done with an elephant in America.
The elephant again was found on the ground the next morning, and Wiley estimated she spent about 10 hours down on each day.
Elephants will lie down to sleep, but spending prolonged periods of time on the ground can be fatal because of their weight. The cause of her death remains unknown.
Zoo staff consulted doctors, the elephant’s former owner and other elephant programs and concluded at the time Shannon likely had colic, Wiley said.
“If it would have been colic, that would have been the practical course of action,” Wiley said of leaving the animal alone overnight before taking a long pause. “The best way I can say it, is, we wish we would have done things differently.”
In Defense of Animals, an animal advocacy group in California, renewed a 7-year-old plea for the zoo to relocate remaining elephants to a sanctuary. In a statement calling the zoo negligent for not leaving a staff member with Shannon or at least monitoring the video feed overnight, the group called the zoo’s treatment “gross neglect and unacceptably inadequate care.”
“It’s shocking they didn’t want to disturb Shannon,” said Toni Frohoff, an elephant scientist with In Defense of Animals. “It’s their job to disturb an elephant that is dangerously ailing — disturb her with proper medical intervention. That’s a doctor’s duty.”
Staff left Shannon in a stall filled with sand, which would allow for Down Elephant Protocol to be implemented more smoothly if it again became necessary. She laid down in the sand stall about 8:38 p.m., a half-hour after elephant staff left the building, Wiley said. She stayed down for about nine and a half hours overnight, according to a closed-network camera system that records the movements of the zoo’s elephants.
At the time, that video couldn’t be accessed from outside the zoo, but Wiley said as of Wednesday a new system would allow remote monitoring.
“We can truly monitor them now 24/7,” he said.
The animal welfare group would like the USDA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to revoke the zoo’s accreditation. In the early 2000s, the zoo lost its accreditation for about about three years. The current accreditation will face renewal in 2022. That accreditation allows zoos to participate in inter-zoo programs like breeding and loaning exhibits. Frohoff called the zoo a “repeat offender” among the worst in the country.
“They keep saying they’ll do better but they don’t,” she said.
Both the USDA and AZA will conduct reviews of the elephant program next month, Wiley said, a process zoo staff “understand and respect.”
“Although it may sound weird, we’re actually looking forward to breaking this down with them,” he said. “For this particular event, there is a lot that can be learned.”
An initial test showed no signs of colic, but Wiley suspects an intestinal track issue. Since Shannon arrived at the zoo in August 2016, caretakers have fed her more calories than the other elephants, but she was unable to gain weight, he said. The other African elephant, Tembo, weighs about 2,000 pounds more than Shannon, Wiley said.
Shannon also didn’t attempt to get back up on her own either time she went down, he said.
“Typically they’ll rock back and forth to get back up,” he said. “There was something going on inside this elephant that we couldn’t see.”
Results of a pathology test should be available by early January, he said.
Frohoff called for the zoo’s remaining elephants, 48-year-old Tembo, 58-year-old Sunda and 59-year-old Cora, to be sent to a warmer climate. Elephants are accustomed to subtropical temperatures, she said, and in colder climates are often confined to barns for much of the winter months, limiting healthy movement.
“Elephants don’t belong in Kansas,” she said.
Contact reporter Luke Ranker at (785) 295-1270 or @lrankerNEWS on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/lukeranker.