A necropsy could reveal why 44-year-old Joni, an African elephant being transported to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo from the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina, died Sunday.
A veterinarian and head elephant keeper from Greenville Zoo followed Joni from South Carolina and monitored her at every stop, along with nine zoos along the way that were on standby to help in case of an emergency, according to a statement from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
"Despite all the precautions taken, Joni passed so quickly that nothing could be done for her," the statement read.
Losing an animal during transport is a rare occurrence for institutions affiliated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but older and larger animals can face more complications.
As an elderly elephant, Joni had age-specific needs that Cheyenne Mountain Zoo veterinarians and keepers felt confident they could manage, said zoo spokeswoman Erica Meyer.
"The Wilgruen Elephant Barn boasts state-of-the-art features that assist the zoo in caring for mature elephants, including a crane and hoist system than can lift a disabled elephant and a care system that weighs elephants and provides a safe area for veterinary care and husbandry training," Meyer said.
Joni's long-time South Carolina companion Ladybird died in March, leaving her alone and needing socialization with other elephants, which is imperative for an elephant's mental well-being. New standards would have required a third of the Greenville Zoo's area to be dedicated to elephant care and zoo officials decided to find a new home for Joni. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was an easy pick.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's Encounter Africa exhibit, made possible by a $13.5 million capital campaign, was the biggest addition in the zoo's history, completed in 2013. The exhibit provides habitats for African elephants, lions, meerkats, and a black rhinoceros.
The zoo in Colorado Springs houses four mature non-reproductive elephants; Kimba, 36, Lucky, 35, Jambo, 31, and Malaika, 28. Joni would have been the oldest elephant in the zoo's herd, Meyer said.
"The outdoor exhibit space is also beneficial for elephant health, as it offers many exercise opportunities, including a long walking path, built-in enrichment activities, a pool and a3-acre yard," Meyer said.
Bob Chastain, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo president and CEO, said staff at both zoos were aware of the risk involved in transporting Joni because of her age, but they wanted to provide her with the very best end-of-life care.
"We are sad for both the community of Greenville, as they mourn the loss of an elephant they knew for almost her entire life, and for the community of Colorado Springs, who will never get a chance to meet her," Chastain said in the statement.