The oldest elephant in Tennessee turns 70 this week — a life that has far surpassed expectations and that is being celebrated by The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald.
That’s where Shirley, an Asian elephant, has lived since 1999.
But it was the preceding decades that dramatically tested her mettle.
The sanctuary has documented Shirley’s early life, from when she was first captured in Sumatra in the 1950s.
During 22 years in a world-traveling circus, her troupe was once seized by Fidel Castro; another time in 1963, the ship she was on caught fire and sank; she also survived a highway crash and a 1974 fight with another elephant, which forever crippled her back leg.
Shirley next spent a lonesome two decades as the only elephant at a Louisiana zoo, before a turn for the better at the sanctuary.
“Shirley has been living here, going strong, and has bonded with many elephants,” said Education Manager Joy Owens. “Shirley definitely has an air about her … many elephants seem to recognize Shirley as the oldest, as the wisest, maybe there’s something about her that the other elephants seem to respect.”
Owens fawns over Shirley as an intelligent elephant who can still learn new skills.
At 70, Shirley’s life span is on par with wild elephants, and she’s earned the right to relax. There are no visitors allowed at the sanctuary, and “Shirley spends her time doing exactly what Shirley wants to do,” Owens said.
While the elephant has slowed down somewhat — and her leg injury can be bothersome some days — she tends to be more active at night.
“Part of it could be her aging, part of it could be she’s just a smart elephant and she doesn’t want to move around when it’s hot,” Owens said.
For the birthday, Shirley will be fed extra banana leaves and hay, plus a cake made of fruits and vegetables.
The sanctuary is also gathering birthday wishes on social media — use hashtag #ShirleyTurns70 — and will present a caregiver chat from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., July 14, at The Elephant Discovery Center at 27 E. Main St., in Hohenwald (there will be no elephants present).
“Shirley is a survivor,” Owens said. “The way we’ve seen her bond with and care for other elephants — the way we’ve seen her interact with her caregivers — it’s just truly extraordinary for her to have such a positive and friendly nature.”