Reid Park's beloved Connie put down at San Diego Zoo

Asian elephant, moved in February amid controversy, had infections
2012-07-20T00:01:00Z 2012-07-20T15:25:11Z Reid Park's beloved Connie put down at San Diego ZooVeronica M. Cruz and Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Connie, a 45-year-old Asian elephant who spent most of her life at the Reid Park Zoo, was euthanized at her new home in San Diego Thursday after urinary- and reproductive-tract infections caused a serious decline in her health.

Connie and her longtime companion, Shaba, shared an enclosure in Tucson for 30 years, and Connie acted as a mother figure to Shaba. They were moved in February to the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey, which includes a center that focuses on the care of sick and elderly elephants.

Connie had been suffering from urinary- and reproductive-tract infections for several years, said Alexis Moreno, a Reid Park Zoo veterinarian who treated the pachyderm in the past. Tucson city officials had considered splitting them up to introduce a new breeding herd at the Reid Park Zoo, but after vehement protests decided to move them both to San Diego.

There, even as Connie's health declined, the two were together to the end.

"They've been adjacent to each other while we treated Connie," said Yadira Galindo, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo. "When Connie died they gave Shaba the opportunity to say goodbye. She spent about 20 minutes with her. She'd go to Connie, then go to her keeper."

Connie's most recent bout of infections started about three weeks ago. Despite antibiotics, she was losing weight and wasn't eating or drinking, Galindo said.

She was only drinking about 1 1/2 gallons of water a day, when an elephant needs at least 75 gallons to survive, Galindo said.

Thursday morning, zoo officials "made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize her when it became apparent that Connie would be unable to sustain herself," San Diego Zoo veterinarian Tracy Clippinger wrote in a blog posted on the zoo's website.

Connie was born in the wild. The Reid Park Zoo purchased her from a petting zoo in 1968 when she was just a few years old. The Tucson zoo was her only home until her move to California.

She was the zoo's first elephant until a male elephant was brought to the zoo for a few years in the 1970s. Shaba, an African elephant, 14 years younger than Connie, came to the zoo in 1982.

After arriving in San Diego, Connie contracted a urinary-tract infection but responded to antibiotics, Clippinger wrote on the blog.

She was introduced to the rest of the herd in the spring, but within two months keepers observed a decline in her health, Clippinger wrote. Test results showed a decreased white blood cell count, indicating her immune system was fighting an infection.

This time, she did not respond well to medications, the blog said. Despite intravenous medication, she was still not eating or drinking, the blog said.

A specialist found that fluid was accumulating in her abdomen, which can lead to problems with breathing and can be caused by other health problems such as heart or liver disease, cancer, vasculitis and ulcers.

The San Diego Zoo ultimately made the decision to euthanize Connie when it became clear she wasn't going to get better.

Staff at the Reid Park Zoo were deeply affected by the loss.

"We're very sad," zoo administrator Susan Basford said. "It's hard. We all know that animals die, that animals get older. … People have known Connie for a very long time. Our guests will be sad as well."

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who was integral in brokering the deal with San Diego to take both Connie and Shaba, said he was notified by zoo staff Thursday morning that Connie was in failing health.

"I'm glad she had good care to the end and that Shaba is now in a place where she will be able to socialize with a new herd," he said.

Rothschild stood behind the city's decision to transfer the elephants and said the city kept its promise to keep Connie and Shaba together in a facility that provides excellent care.

Councilman Steve Kozachik agreed that San Diego was the best place for Connie. He added that the same outcome would have befallen the beloved pachyderm regardless of her location.

"The best thing for her quality of life was to be moved to San Diego were they specialize in geriatric elephants. She received superior care in San Diego because that's their specialty," Kozachik said. "It would be wrong for people to draw the conclusion that if she stayed here, she would be fine."

Tracy Toland an animal advocate who was critical of the city's plans to split up Connie and Shaba, said she was surprised to learn of Connie's health problems.

"Nobody at either zoo has ever said Connie was sick. They just said she was an aging Asian elephant," she said.

She said she had requested Connie's medical records from the Reid Park Zoo earlier this year and was told that Connie was in good health.

The San Diego Zoo will perform a necropsy on Connie to determine her cause of death.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or 573-4224. Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at ddaronco@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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