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When Elephants Die

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A Toronto Zoo elephant.


Yesterday’s news about the death of Tara, the Toronto Zoo’s forty-one-year-old elephant, got us wondering how zoos deal with the bodies of their biggest residents when they pass away.


A summary of the procedures for dealing with a deceased elephant’s body is contained in a pamphlet published by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, by which the Toronto Zoo is accredited, titled ELEPHANT NECROPSY PROTOCOL (caps theirs). The Protocol contains a complete list of all the tools necessary for determining an elephant’s cause of death. These include hammers, chisels, handsaws, meathooks, a reciprocating saw or chainsaw, and “a continual supply of sharp knives.” The specific functions of all these tools are described at length; we won’t reprint any of it, but if you really want to know how elephants are dissected, the details start on page eight of the pamphlet [PDF].
The pamphlet recommends moving the body with chains and a tow truck, or with a hoist and a flatbed trailer. “Ideally,” it says, “the necropsy should be performed adjacent to a hole large enough to contain the carcass and deep enough to prevent odors and excavation by scavenging animals.” Toronto has no bylaw to govern animal burials, so this is some of the best guidance available concerning the depth of the hole.
According to a press release, Tara will be buried on zoo grounds.
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Elephant deaths are frequently controversial and traumatic. This one is no exception. Zoo Check Canada, a watchdog group, told the Globe and Mail that Tara’s death might have been a result of Toronto’s chilly climate, and called upon the Toronto Zoo to phase out its elephant program. A quick search turns up similarly sombre newspaper articles about recently deceased elephants at zoos near Chicago, Dallas, and, in 2007, Seattle, where zoo officials faced criticism from animal rights groups after a six-year-old elephant died from an elephant-specific strain of herpes. The Toronto Zoo itself has lost four elephants in the past four years, including Tara.
These sad, contentious zoo stories are not the sources of the most enduring accounts of the handling of elephant remains: those tend to come from circus lore. Jumbo, arguably the world’s most famous circus elephant, died here in Ontario in 1885, after being hit by a locomotive. P.T. Barnum had the elephant’s skin removed and stuffed, and eventually donated the resulting statue to Tufts University, where, in 1975, it was destroyed in a fire. Jumbo’s ashes are now allegedly stored in the office of the Tufts athletic director, in a peanut butter jar. Norma Jean, another circus elephant, died in 1972, when she was struck by a bolt of lightning while standing in the town square of Oquawka, Illinois. She was buried where she fell, and a monument was erected.
A necropsy is a less romantic way of dealing with an elephant’s death, but it does, at least, contribute to scientific knowledge of the physiology of the species, which is another kind of monument.
The adage has it that elephants never forget, but it’s us, also, that do the never-forgetting. Elephants are too big, and too alien to this continent (Tara was from Mozambique) for their deaths to go unremarked upon. Rest in peace, huge pachyderm.
Photos by FeXd, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

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