The Performing Animal Welfare Society’s most iconic elephant no longer could walk without severe pain. Disabled by leg problems stemming from decades of standing on concrete at a Wisconsin zoo, Annie could not wander out to her favorite grassy spot in the hills of Calaveras County to recline in the sun. Her massive head drooped, and her 8,400-pound body seemed to be caving in on itself.
As longtime PAWS veterinarian Jackie Gai prepared the solutions that would relax Annie, then lead her to a gentle death, the animal’s life story played like a movie in her mind: Born 55 years ago in India, torn from her mother at age 1 and shipped across the world to frigid Milwaukee. Chained and beaten during videotaped training sessions. Then, finally, trucked to PAWS, where, in her senior years, she explored hundreds of acres of natural terrain, swam in lakes and lounged in a heated barn at the Ark 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas.
On an afternoon last week that everyone at the compound had been dreading for months, Gai injected a powerful sedative into Annie’s flank as PAWS founder Ed Stewart and elephant manager Brian Busta stood by, tears in their eyes. Minutes later, Annie relaxed her trunk and began drifting down to the soft dirt. After making sure Annie was unconscious, Gai injected a euthanasia solution into a vein in her ear, ending a life that traced the tortured history of captive elephants in the United States.
“Annie’s story is a gripping story, symbolic of so many elephant stories,” said Gai, an exotic animal specialist. “She was old and very wise. We learned a lot from Annie.”
Elephants, scientists have confirmed, are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet, matching chimpanzees as the brainiacs of the animal kingdom. They form strong family bonds, with elephant mothers and their offspring typically staying together for life. Communicating with rumbles, bellows and moans, they are adept tool users and creative problem solvers. They are among only a few species of animals known to recognize themselves in mirrors, according to recent studies.
Scientists who have studied elephants in the wild also believe them to be highly empathetic, comforting one another, refusing to leave fallen family members behind and seemingly mourning their dead.
Many of those very qualities, along with impressive strength and girth, have made them extremely valuable to zoos, circuses and other enterprises that entertain humans. But captivity is particularly difficult for elephants, which in the wild live in complex societies and wander for miles, Stewart said.
“You take a wild elephant that has no natural enemies away from her home, and you break her and beat her and turn her into a machine,” he said. “There is nothing good about it.”
Such scenarios are happening less frequently today, thanks in part to public exposure about the treatment of captive elephants, said Betsy Swart, executive director of the Amboseli Trust For Elephants, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has offices in Florida and Massachusetts.
Many zoos in cold climates in the United States, including Detroit, no longer house elephants for ethical reasons, said Swart, who has studied the animals both in the wild and in captivity. “But unfortunately it still does happen.”
Annie’s story, familiar to Swart and scientists throughout the world, was one of the first to capture widespread public attention.
According to news reports at the time, Annie was taken from her mother in Assam, India, in 1960 and shipped to the Milwaukee Zoo, where during her introduction to the community she participated in a “tea party” with young children. On display at the facility, she spent much of her life chained to a concrete floor.
In 1994, humane organizations made public a videotape of Annie and her companion Tammy being beaten into submission by trainers at the zoo. The footage caused public outrage, and the zoo bowed to public pressure and sent the elephants to PAWS.
The nonprofit PAWS, founded by Stewart and the late Pat Derby in Galt in 1984, offers sanctuary to animals rescued or retired from zoos, circuses and other entertainment enterprises. The organization, which also investigates exotic animal cruelty and assists in prosecution of such cases, operates three sanctuaries in Northern California, including Ark 2000, which houses 10 aging Asian and African elephants and a variety of smaller animals on 2,300 acres of hills and grasslands.
Both African and Asian elephants are “highly endangered,” Swart said, a result of hunting and habitat destruction in their native lands. In the wild, they can live to about 60; they die much younger in captivity. Annie was one of the oldest Asian elephants in North America, according to PAWS.
When she and Tammy arrived at PAWS, then headquartered in Galt, in 1995, Annie was “extremely dangerous,” Stewart said.
“She wanted to kill everyone, and I totally understand why,” he said. Tammy was calmer, “way more forgiving,” Stewart recalled.
Annie needed a few months to understand “that people weren’t going to hit her again,” he said. The PAWS team used “positive reinforcement,” approaching her cautiously and rewarding good behavior with soft-spoken praise and treats. In time, she allowed staffers to apply medicines to her feet and trim her toenails.
Both elephants arrived at PAWS with advanced arthritis and foot disease, two common causes of death in captive elephants, Gai said. Like humans with similar conditions, Tammy and Annie received ibuprofen and other drugs, as well as herbal formulas, to make them more comfortable. They got warm foot baths with Epsom salts. Once they moved to the new Ark 2000 compound in 2002, they were able to rest their legs by floating in a lake.
Tammy died in 2005 at age 52 from her painful leg ailments, and for a while Annie was “almost inconsolable,” Gai said. “She really closed in on herself. She just seemed lost.” She never bonded as closely with another elephant at the compound. Her health began to slowly decline, but she remained energetic and was a voracious eater.
During the past few months, Gai and Stewart said, Annie was moving with more and more difficulty, and had to be encouraged to leave the barn. She stopped going out to her special place on the side of the hill where she knocked down brush and created a sleeping nest. She took fewer dips in the lake. She seemed reluctant to lie down, preferring to sleep standing up. “That wasn’t our usual Annie,” said Gai.
Several times, her caretakers gathered around her to assess whether it was time to end her suffering. “Inevitably on those days, in those moments, she perked up,” Gai said. “She would stand up squarely and throw dirt on herself, almost as if to say, ‘I’m not done yet.’”
But earlier this month, Annie’s ailments were taking too great a toll. “We had done everything we possibly could to alleviate her pain and she was so uncomfortable,” said Gai. “Looking into her eyes and as a vet knowing the severity of what was going on inside of her, I knew it was time.”
And so, Stewart and others brought heavy equipment to Annie’s favorite spot on the compound and dug her final resting place. They notified a local veterinarian who had worked with PAWS animals, and asked him to help with the euthanasia procedures. They contacted pathologists at UC Davis and arranged for them to take samples from Annie’s body after her death. They gathered the staff together and encouraged them to bid her goodbye.
On Nov. 18, a Tuesday, Annie got even more attention than usual. “I broke all the rules,” Stewart said. “I fed her treats all day. She got boxes of Frosted Flakes, the best hay, a little alfalfa. We spent the whole day with her, getting ready.”
At about 4 p.m., Stewart, Gai and Busta entered the barn and greeted Annie. They stroked her forehead and spoke gently. She responded by caressing them with her trunk.
“This was quite possibly the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever been through,” said Gai. “It hurt my heart. In the moment, I could personally see the culmination of her life, everything she went through. She embodied the struggle of captive elephants. Now it was me who had to take her life.”
Annie died quietly. “She didn’t fight, and it was her nature to fight things,” Gai said. “But with us, she didn’t feel threatened. She didn’t struggle or collapse. She just drifted down. If I had prayed for the perfect passage from euthanasia, this would have been it.”
As members of the staff waited outside, Annie’s three most trusted human companions cried together.
When Stewart sits in his chair overlooking the PAWS compound, he said, he still sees Annie sleeping in the grass and lolling in the lake.
“Knowing about her life and what she went through, we just wanted her to have some good years, and we worked real hard to give her that,” he said. “I’m happy the way it turned out. I’ll always see her out there.”
None of the other elephants at PAWS witnessed Annie’s death, but in the days to come they surely will miss her, Swart said. “They definitely will notice that she is gone,” she said. Gai is closely monitoring the surviving elephants, and said they seem to be doing fine so far.
Annie, said Swart, left a powerful legacy.
“She left us with the knowledge that elephants not only are intelligent and can show grief and happiness, but they can teach us what it means to survive something horrific and still be forgiving,” she said. “She showed us that, given a chance, they will reclaim their lives.”