After the death of her longtime friend and companion at the Oakland Zoo, 44-year-old elephant Donna is getting relocated to a new home — an elephant sanctuary where she won't be as lonely.
The zoo made the announcement on Facebook, saying that they have spent the last year — since knowing that the euthanizing of their 46-year-old elephant Lisa, Donna's constant companion since 1989, was likely imminent — trying to find a compatible female elephant elsewhere in the country to bring to Oakland to keep Donna company. But no such elephants were found.
"In our unwavering commitment to act in the best interest of our animals, we have decided that best solution in uniting Donna with other compatible female African elephants is to move her to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an AZA-accredited natural-habitat refuge, in Tennessee," the zoo says. "This move will allow Donna to join a larger group of three female African elephants there, Flora, Tange, and Sukari, all of similar age and social experience to Donna."
Donna's new home will also be a significant upgrade in terms of space. The Elephant Sanctuary has 3,000 acres on which the animals roam, 85 miles southwest of Nashville — while the Oakland Zoo's elephant exhibit is just 6.5 acres.
Lisa had been suffering from numerous health problems in the last couple of years, and had lost significant mobility. Still, Donna stayed with her at all times, even while sleeping — though Lisa had taken to sleeping while standing up, because she could no longer physically lie down.
As the Chronicle reported last month, the difficult decision was made to finally euthanize her, and Donna was also with her at her final moments. "When she collapsed to the ground, her final breaths leaving her body, Donna walked out to comfort her," the Chronicle reported, via her keepers. "Donna stayed for hours beside Lisa’s lifeless body, just touching her and comprehending that her partner was gone."
Since then, the elephant keepers say they "have been giving Donna lots of care and extra attention and have been working very hard to find the best solution for her, based on her particular social needs and lifelong well-being."
Female elephants tend to form strong social bonds with each other, experts say, particularly in the wild, in herds, though sometimes in captivity. Lisa arrived at the Oakland Zoo as a two-year-old elephant in 1979, and Donna joined her ten years later. The pair immediately bonded, zookepers said, even though that is somewhat unusual.
"They’re both elephants that were brought in from the wild," said Colleen Kinzley, zoo’s vice president of animal care, speaking to the Chronicle. “It makes it very difficult for elephants to develop a relationship with a complete stranger. But that’s what they did. I think that’s one of the things I was always very grateful for, that Lisa was like that."
Now, the elephant keepers say that amid mourning the loss of Lisa, they will now have to morn the loss of Donna, even though moving her will be best.
"Losing Donna as well, even though she’s going on to a happy future, is still going to be a loss for us and the community," says the zoo's lead elephant keeper, Gina Kinzley, speaking to the Chronicle.
No other zoo in the Bay Area has elephants anymore, as activism and broader zookeeping norms have convinced everyone that elephants shouldn't be kept in captivity. The San Francisco Zoo, for instance, made the decision in 2005 not to continue housing elephants after the last of its elephants passed away.
The only remaining elephant, then, in the local area, will be the Oakland Zoo's sole male elephant Osh. Male elephants are okay being loners, experts say, and don't have the same social stimulation needs as females.
The Oakland Zoo previously lost the eldest of its female elephants, 50-year-old M'Dundamella, in December 2019.