At 72, Shirley defied all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity and lived well beyond the life expectancy for a captive Asian elephant. She was The Sanctuary’s oldest elephant and, at the time of her passing, held the record for the second oldest elephant in North America.
Born in Sumatra in 1948, Shirley was captured from the wild and sold to a traveling circus, entertaining audiences for more than 20 years. In addition to the immense hardship of a life in performance, during her time in the circus, Shirley survived capture by Fidel Castro’s forces as well as a highway accident that killed two other elephants. In 1963, the circus ship Shirley was traveling on caught fire and partially sank, leaving Shirley with burns on her back, side, and feet and causing her to lose part of her right ear.
In 1974, Shirley suffered a broken leg during an altercation with another elephant. As a result of her injury, in 1977, she was transferred to The Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens, where she was the sole elephant resident for 22 years. As Shirley aged, the zoo staff decided she needed more space and the companionship of other elephants. Her primary caretaker, Solomon James, accompanied Shirley on her journey to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
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