Misha, a 27-year-old African elephant, died at Hogle Zoo Tuesday afternoon after being euthanized because of declining health.
For the last few weeks, Misha's physical health had been mysteriously deteriorating, and early on, animal care staff was aware through changes in her behavior that she was not feeling well, according to Holly Braithwaite, Hogle Zoo spokeswoman.
Extraordinary efforts were undertaken to diagnose and treat her condition, with treatments including antibiotics, pain management and around-the clock care, zoo officials said. Despite numerous tests, no definitive diagnosis could be determined.
When Misha's treatments became less effective and she was less responsive to medications, it became obvious her quality of life was drastically and quickly diminishing. Seeing no opportunity for recovery, Zoo staff collectively made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her, Braithwaite said.
"Misha received the best veterinary care available," said Hogle Zoo senior veterinarian Dr. Nancy Carpenter. "However, due to their size, medical problems with elephants can be very challenging. Numerous elephant experts were consulted, and their years of experience, along with the over 60 years of combined experience of the Hogle Zoo elephant staff, were used to make the best choices in Misha's medical care."
The exact cause of Misha's decline may not be determined until Hogle Zoo's veterinary staff performs a necropsy (an animal autopsy, which is standard zoo procedure following animal deaths and is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Elephant Management and Care Standards) and pathology reports have been returned.
"It could take weeks," Braithwaite said, for the necropsy to be completed.
"The decision to end Misha's discomfort was one of the hardest to make," said Hogle Zoo Director Craig Dinsmore. "The entire staff at the zoo is in mourning, even as they continue to take great care of the zoo's other animals."
Misha had only been at Hogle Zoo for about three years. She arrived in 2005 from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif.
Despite the loss, visitors to Hogle Zoo will not be without elephants to enjoy. Misha is survived by Hogle Zoo's two other African elephants, Christie, 22, and Dari, 48, both females.
Dari is currently the oldest African elephant residing in any zoo in the nation. Dari is pregnant and is expected to deliver late next summer. Elephants have a 20- to 22-month pregnancy.
African elephants live about 30-40 years in the wild, but usually longer in zoos. Misha was only "middle aged," according to Braithwaite.
She also said Hogle Zoo is open to the possibility of getting a new elephant in the future, but right now the zoo is simply trying to regroup. African elephants are currently a threatened species and zoos share them under a population management plan.
Do the other elephants miss Misha? Braithwaite said elephants are herd animals and they do seem to have a limited understanding of death. Christie and Dari were allowed to mingle with Misha during her final hours and pay their respects.
"They were back to eating yesterday (Wednesday)," Braithwaite said. "And trying to get past it like the rest of us."
She also stressed zoo animals are not immortal. "Death is part of the life cycle," even for zoos, she said.
Misha is the third elephant to perish at Hogle Zoo in the past 7 1/2 years. Wankie, a 36-year-old elephant, died on May 1, 2005, shortly after being transported to Hogle Zoo from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Wankie was euthanized after breathing difficulties.
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