Ellen, the 60-year-old Little Rock Zoo elephant, died this morning, a city official tells us. That explains the earlier news of an unexplained closure of the zoo this morning. Two elephants had arrived only recently as companions for Ellen, left alone by the death of her long-time companion Mary.
UPDATE: A Zoo news release (see jump) says a stroke or heart attack is believed to be the cause of death. Pictures from Ellen's 57-year life at the Zoo can be seen at the zoo website.
I asked if the zoo vet thought the introduction of new companions could have contributed in any way to Ellen's health. Zoo spokeswoman Susan Altrui responded:
Our vet says it’s highly unlikely. She had been doing well and the introductions were going well. At 60-years-old things like this can happen. With Mary it was different because we had a prior diagnosis [of cancer] and we knew she would pass soon. It gave the staff and the community time to prepare for it. Part of why we didn’t disclose anything earlier today was so that staff had a moment to mourn her loss. They work day after day with these animals and Ellen has been a part of this Zoo for such a long time that it isn’t easy to let her go.
We learned something was amiss when a reader reported the closed zoo this morning. He was offered a pass for later, but was told zoo employees weren't at liberty to disclose the cause of the closure. A Zoo spokesman said the same to us when we first inquired. A volunteer working the zoo switchboard had said the zoo was closed for "maintenance." Removal of an elephant for burial — done by the zoo at an undisclosed rural site near Little Rock — is not an easy task.
The Zoo reopened about 2 p.m.
CORRECTION: I earlier mentioned video posted yesterday on the Zoo Facebook page of the arrival of a black rhino at the zoo. It was posted yesterday sure enough. But the rhino arrived three years ago. That's all I'll say about that.
LITTLE ROCK ZOO NEWS RELEASE
Stroke or Heart Attack Likely to Blame for Death of 60-Year-Old Elephant
LITTLE ROCK (July 5, 2011) — Sadly, this morning Ellen the elephant died with staff by her side. Preliminary indications are that 60-year-old Ellen died from a stroke or heart attack according to Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Marilynn Baeyens.
The Zoo was closed this morning and will continue to be closed so that Zoo staff can remove Ellen from the Zoo.
In 1954 a train pulled into Little Rock to deliver a very special package: a three-year-old elephant named Ellen. Ellen was purchased for the Little Rock Zoo by a donation from Raymond Rebsamen, a local businessman and philanthropist. Ellen was brought to the Zoo to be a companion to Ruth, an elephant living at the capital city’s zoo since 1937 when she was purchased from the Engesser Circus.
Ellen quickly captured the hearts of Arkansans. Her arrival was met with much excitement and that same excitement was seen on the faces of children and adults alike when they visited Ellen throughout the years. Generations celebrated birthday parties for Ellen and some remember a time past when Ellen gave rides to the public.
Ellen holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Arkansans and will be deeply missed by Zoo staff and by the community as a whole.
Donations in Ellen’s memory can be made to the International Elephant Foundation at www.elephantconservation.org. Pictures of Ellen from 1954 to today can also be found online at www.littlerockzoo.com..