Connie, the Asian elephant who spent decades at the Reid Park Zoo before being moved to San Diego earlier this year, had an aggressive type of cancer in her reproductive system, necropsy results show.
Connie was euthanized last week by San Diego Zoo officials.
"The findings are showing that her recent decline in health is due to an aggressive cancer in her cervix and uterus that spread to her abdominal cavity," said Yadira Galindo, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo.
It's unknown when the cancer first started to develop in 45-year-old Connie, Galindo said.
"This type of uterine cancer is a long-term process that can occur in aging mammals," she said.
Connie began having urinary-and-reproductive tract infections several years ago and has had physical exams and blood tests at both zoos.
However, tumors weren't detected until early last week when the San Diego Zoo had a specialist perform an ultrasound on Connie, Galindo said.
"We think this cancer is really what was causing some of those infections," she said.
Cancer in the reproductive system is difficult to diagnose in living elephants because of their size and "the way their organs shield each other," Galindo said.
When Connie had infections, they were always remedied by doses of antibiotics so there was never a need to conduct any diagnostic exams, said Reid Park Zoo veterinarian Alexis Moreno.
Performing an ultrasound on an elephant requires a "significant amount" of sedation and draining, she said.
"Obviously, doing your basic diagnostic techniques in a several thousand pound animal is challenging at best, so to do an ultrasound is very challenging," she said.
Moreno said she was surprised to learn Connie had such advanced cancer, but said it confirmed that zoo officials made the right decision to euthanize her.
"She would not have survived for very much longer," Moreno said. When it becomes clear to us that their quality of life is that severely affected, you make that decision for them. To watch an animal that you love suffer, that's devastating. That's not something that we would do."
Connie and Shaba, an African elephant, who shared an exhibit at the Reid Park Zoo for 30 years, were transferred to San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey in February.
Connie's health took a turn for the worse recently.
She had been battling an infection and was not responding to medications. She was not eating or drinking, and fluid began building up in her abdomen.
"Because of the aggressiveness of this cancer no matter where she had been she wouldn't have been able to recover from this," Galindo said.
Shaba spent some time with Connie's body to say goodbye to the elephant she considered a mother figure.
"We know from various studies that elephants have some understanding of death so when an elephant passes in our care, we give their herd mates a chance to see and touch the body," San Diego Zoo keeper Nora Kigin wrote in a blog posted on the zoo's website the day after Connie died.
Making sure Shaba is behaving normally since losing Connie is a priority for keepers.
"We will continue to watch Shaba closely to make sure that she is coping with this difficult change as well as possible," Kigin wrote.
Shaba is in her own exhibit and has not yet shared a yard with the rest of the herd.
Keepers have resumed introductions between the zoo's dominant female, Mary, and Shaba, a process that was put on hold while Connie was being treated for her health complications, Galindo said.
"Because of the hierarchy you always want to make friends with the animal on top," Galindo said. "If the dominant female is OK with Shaba being around, it's most likely that the other females will follow suit."
During the introduction process, Mary and Shaba are kept in exhibits separated by a fence that allows them to touch and smell each other.
So far, they both have responded very well, Galindo said.
Shaba also continues to be active in exploring her exhibit, Galindo said.
Keepers have been doing enrichment and training exercises with Shaba "to keep her mentally and physically stimulated," Galindo said.
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4224.