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India elephant dies of broken heart

Published: Thursday, May 6 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

LUCKNOW, India -- Distressed by a companion's death, Damini refused to move, to eat, to drink. For 24 days, zookeepers and veterinarians tried everything they could think of to save an elephant who seemed determined to die.

Caretakers cooled her with a water spray and fans as she lay under a makeshift tent they erected of fragrant medicinal grass in a zoo in this northern Indian town. They tempted her with sugarcane and bananas -- her favorites. They even fed her intravenously.Despite all their efforts, Damini died Wednesday in her enclosure -- loose gray skin hanging over her protruding bones, bed sores covering much of her body.

"In the face of Damini's intense grief, all our treatment failed," said Dr. Utkarsh Shukla, veterinarian at the Prince of Wales Zoo in Lucknow, southeast of New Delhi.

Zoo officials said Damini was 72. She came to the zoo last year. She was alone for five months until the arrival in September of a pregnant younger elephant named Champakali.

Champakali came from Dudhwa National Park, 310 miles southeast of New Delhi, where she had worked carrying around tourists. When she became pregnant, apparently by a wild bull elephant, park officials decided to send her to the zoo in Lucknow for a kind of maternity leave.

Zoo officials were worried about caring for Champakali, but, Shukla said, "Damini took up the job instantaneously."

The two elephants "became inseparable in no time," said zookeeper Kamaal, who goes by one name. Damini made herself available at all hours for Champakali, who lapped up the attention.

According to elephant experts, such attachments commonly develop among elephants, with older elephants serving as caretakers for younger ones, especially in pregnancy.

"Elephants are very social animals. They can form very close bonds with others in their social group," said Pat Thomas, curator of mammals at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. "It's been pretty well documented that they do exhibit emotions that we would consider grieving" when a calf or other elephant dies.

However, he said, an age-related medical problem should not be discounted as well in the case of an elephant as old as Damini.

When Champakali died on April 11 giving birth to a stillborn calf, Damini seemed to shed tears, then showed little interest in food or anything else, according to zoo officials.

A week ago, Damini completely stopped eating or drinking her usual daily quota of 40 gallons of water, despite the 116 degree heat.

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