The Passing of a Gentle Giant

Workers, volunteers and some animals are struggling to cope with the sudden loss of another gentle giant at the Toronto Zoo.

Tequila, a 38-year-old African elephant, was discovered dead in her outdoor exhibit Wednesday. She’d displayed no signs of sickness, according to zoo officials, and that combined with the fact these animals can live up to 45 years in captivity, has left the creature’s keepers and her family in shock.

Tequila’s 28-year-old daughter Thika refused to leave her mother’s side and expressed her sadness by throwing dirt on the body. Elephants, like humans, mourn the loss of loved ones, zoo staff said. Sensitive, social creatures, they go into reveries of mourning: delicately lifting and sniffing the bones, sometimes covering them with dirt and leaves.

Tequila will be buried on the zoo grounds. Her remains will be examined by veterinary staff and an expert from Guelph to determine the cause of death.

Just two years ago, Patsy, an African elephant matriarch was euthanized at the Toronto Zoo. She was 40, after all, and according to the zoo, “40 is fairly old for an elephant.”

But Patsy wasn’t old. Any of the renowned elephant researchers (Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, Richard Leakey) will tell you that elephants have a lifespan of 60 to 70 years in the wild, provided they belong to a herd that is relatively well protected from poaching, culling and habitat destruction.

In a zoo, elephants are incarcerated. In the wild they’d be wandering 16 kilometres a day, always in the company of their sisters, their young, their aunts and their mothers. In winter at the zoo, they are separated into pairs and moved into indoor stalls just big enough to allow them to turn around. For up to 16 hours a day these intelligent, emotional animals stand in their own waste on unheated, concrete floors. They sway from stress and boredom. Their feet hurt. Patsy reportedly suffered from long-term degenerative arthritis, an incredibly painful condition that eventually led to the decision to euthanize her.

Rest in peace, Tequila.

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