With a large spread of fruit forming a "cake" and the number 49 spelled out in grapes, Dari celebrated her birthday at Hogle Zoo Friday morning as the oldest African elephant in any North American Zoo.

She and fellow elephant Christie devoured many special treats — including popcorn, peanut butter, watermelon and various vegetables — to celebrate the milestone. It only took two or three bites for the world's largest land mammals to consume the melons.

They even gobbled down some elm trees, another delicacy for them.

Dari is 115 in estimated, equivalent human years, based on translating the average life spans of African elephants in captivity to people terms.

Born in 1960, the age of 49 may not seem very old, but it is for African elephants in zoos.

"Forty-nine is the oldest in any North American accredited zoo," Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md, confirmed for the Deseret News Thursday.

He said the average lifespan of African elephants in zoos is just 33 years, though there is a limited database. That's because an elephant has to die before it calculates into the lifespan database for African elephants.

"Elephants are iconic," Feldman said. "They are a vital part of our culture today, permeate our politics and are enduringly popular."

He also said they are vital to today's critical conservation mission for all the world's endangered animals.

One group far less impressed with Dari's historic birthday is In Defense of Animals, a new elephants' rights group, that believes elephants die prematurely in zoos.

Catherine Doyle, elephant welfare specialist for the IDA, said the unnatural conditions of zoos mean elephants still die prematurely, despite birthdays like Dari's.

"Zoos often portray elephants in their late 30s and early 40s as being old or geriatric, when in fact they would be middle-aged relative to their natural lifespan of 60-70 years," Doyle said. "Elephants in the wild reproduce into their 50s."

She said since 2000, more than half the elephants who died in AZA-accredited zoos did not live to age 40.

Doyle said elephants die early in zoos not because of poor medical care but because it's unnatural for them to live in cramped conditions and outside of the social structures elephants maintain in the wild.

Dari came to Hogle zoo back in 1967, straight from Africa, so she's been at the zoo for some 42 years. Later this summer, the zoo's other African elephant, Christie, 22, will give birth, either in July or August.

For more information, go to www.hoglezoo.org.

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com