5 min read

Lonely Zoo Elephant Dies Just Months After Her Only Companion Passed Away

While the rigors of physical confinement are often the first thing to be mentioned when debating the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, for intelligent, highly social species, like pachyderms, the emotional toll of captivity may be even more profound - and nowhere is that more clear than in the story of an elephant named Joy.

Not long after she was captured in the wild as a calf in the early 1970s, Joy was shipped to the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina where she began her long tenure as a living exhibit without the companionship of another creature like herself. For the better part of 30 years she remained alone, housed in an enclosure so small that it fails to meet even the minimum federal requirements for how much room elephants must be provided.

Joy was briefly moved to another facility that had another elephant, but that animal proved aggressive towards her and she was sent back to Greenville to be on her own.

Elephants are known to form some of the closest bonds of any animal on the planet and have been observed exhibiting happiness upon meeting, grief over loss, and offering comfort to one another at times of hardship. It's no wonder that Joy's connection to her new companion ran deep as the only outlet for her social instincts.

Sadly, it wouldn't last for long. Last March, Ladybird died, leaving Joy all on her own once again. Zookeepers say that her friend's passing left her showing signs of depression.

After determining that they were no longer to provide adequate care for 44-year-old Joy, zoo officials decided that she should be shipped hundreds of miles west to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado where she could live among other elephants again. So Joy was loaded into a trailer for the long journey earlier this month - no doubt a confusing move for the heartbroken elephant who had spent nearly all her life in one place.

Somewhere along the way, during one of the stops to check on her condition, handlers discovered that Joy had died alone in that cramped trailer, far from what had been her home, further still from the open plains of Africa.

As is protocol when a zoo elephant dies in the United States, investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating the cause of death, which, remains a mystery after a preliminary examination. Some are speculating that she may have tripped and suffocated under her own weight, unable to right herself in that small space, or had an underlying medical condition - though, knowing her sad history, it wouldn't be surprising if she died of a broken heart.

Most of the people who passed by Joy's enclosure over her many years at the zoo likely never stopped to consider her history, her depth, or the price she paid every day for that experience of theirs, but the circumstances of her passing leaves little doubt about just how much it was.