Two elephants, both captured from the wild and taken miles away from their real homes, briefly met at a circus when one of them, Jenny, was only a baby and the other, Shirley, was in her 20s.
Back then, Shirley took on the role of a mother to baby Jenny in the circus before they were separated and forced down two different paths.
As years passed, Jenny suffered great torture and kept running away from her trainers during circus performances. Eventually, she was sent away to the Hawthorn Corporation in Illinois for breeding purposes, and this was when she suffered a serious injury that gave her a limp for many years that followed.
When she was finally deemed “useless” as a breeder, the neglected elephant was forced back into the circus life for another two years before finally being allowed to retire at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1996. With scars on her body and a weak backfoot, Jenny arrived at the sanctuary and eventually adjusted to her new lifestyle.
About three years later, a new elephant arrived at the sanctuary and Jenny seemed extremely anxious to meet the newcomer. People at the sanctuary could not understand what made that meeting between the two elephants so intense; they thought it was nothing more than a casual greeting where one resident was greeting the new arrival. However, for the two elephants, it was an emotional reunion because Jenny instantly knew that the newcomer was none other than Shirley, the very same elephant that she met as a baby over two decades ago at the circus.
Shirley had arrived at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee with scars of her own and stories of abuse that she endured over the years. She came out alive from a highway accident that killed two other elephants, she lost part of her ear on a circus ship that caught fire and almost sank, and she broke her hind leg in a fight with another elephant while traveling with the Lewis Brothers Circus.
In 1999, she could finally retire at the sanctuary and, more importantly, reunite with someone extremely special after a separation of about 24 years, according to Tennessean.
Shirley and Jenny shared a bond so strong that they were like mother and daughter during their final years together, according to PBS. “That was the love that started our elephant family,” said Carol Buckley, Executive Director of the sanctuary, explaining how the two elephants’ relationship changed everything.
“After Shirley’s arrival, elephants who had previously been companions and friends were now sisters and aunts in the mother and daughter relationship of Shirley and Jenny. They gave the sanctuary its future,” Carol added.
The reunited elephants remained immensely close until the day Jenny passed away. “The day before she died, Jenny had been down and she wouldn’t get up,” Carol recalled. “Shirley stood by her and insisted that Jenny get up. Jenny just couldn’t get up. Then Jenny stood up but she had to lean on Shirley to keep up. If you looked at Shirley’s face, you could see that she knew that Jenny was dying. Jenny dropped to the ground and Shirley walked into the woods.”
The next day morning, on October 17, 2006, Jenny passed away while Shirley remained inside the woods. She ate nothing for two days.
“It was very hard and especially hard on Shirley,” Carol shared. “Shirley’s whole life was about taking care of baby Jenny. It was like a mom losing her baby.”
After peacefully living out the final years of her life and bonding with the other elephants of the herd, Shirley passed away on February 22, 2021, at the age of 72. Having overcome extremely difficult circumstances, Shirley was seen as a true survivor and lived far beyond the life expectancy of a captive Asian elephant. She also held the record for the second oldest elephant in North America.
“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,” said Janice Zeitlin, CEO of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. “Shirley leaves an enduring legacy marked by a truly remarkable life, and she will be deeply missed by all.”
Cover image source: YouTube