BR Zoo elephant, Judy, dies after long illness

Advocate file photo by MARK SALTZ -- In this July 4, 2009, photo, Judy the elephant gets water sprayed in her face at BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo. The 46-year-old Asian elephant died March 30  at the zoo. Officials released the cause of death on Friday, April 26 as chronic gastrointestinal irritation, a side effect from arthritis treatment. Show caption
Advocate file photo by MARK SALTZ -- In this July 4, 2009, photo, Judy the elephant gets water sprayed in her face at BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo. The 46-year-old Asian elephant died March 30 at the zoo. Officials released the cause of death on Friday, April 26 as chronic gastrointestinal irritation, a side effect from arthritis treatment.

BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo on Friday lost 46-year old Judy, an Asian elephant born in Kabul, Afghanistan, found dead in her enclosure by keepers making their morning rounds.

Phil Frost, director of the zoo, said he did not know exactly when she died or the cause of her death.

The elephant enclosure was closed for about 90 minutes after the zoo opened while workers tended to Judy, Frost said. The zoo reopened the enclosure at about 11 a.m.

Frost described Judy as a “star” of the zoo and recalled that she had lived there since 1974, a longer tenure than anyone except Gordon Pirie, the zoo’s veterinarian.

He compared her passing to losing a family member or long-time pet.

“For those staff who have been involved with taking care of her and had her well-being at the center of their mind every day when they came to work, it’s a huge loss,” Frost said. “Many of these people have been with Judy almost every day of their life for several hours a day for the last several years.”

The median age for female Asian elephants, both in captivity and in the wild, is 46.9 years, so zoo officials had been preparing for her death, although it still came as a surprise, Frost said.

Zoo officials are planning to hold a memorial or tribute for Judy, but Frost said it is too early to decide the specifics, such as the location and date.

With Judy gone, the zoo is left with one elephant, Bozie, a 37-year-old female Asian elephant.

Pirie, the zoo veterinarian, said Bozie seemed to be behaving somewhat somberly Friday morning, but was back to her normal mood and activities by Friday afternoon.

Although Judy had been treated during the past 30 years for arthritis in her knee/carpal joint as well as for minor problems associated with her arthritis and some digestive issues that recently cropped up, she did not have any major health problems, Pirie said.

While arthritis may be fatal in elephants, Pirie said, he declined to speculate as to the cause of Judy’s death until zoo authorities see the results of Friday morning’s necropsy. The results might not be available for another two to four weeks, he added.

Were it not for “Buckskin Bill” Black, host of WAFB’s “Buckskin Bill Show” and “Storyland” for decades, Baton Rouge residents may have never been able to appreciate Judy, Bozie or the two original elephants — Penny and Penny Two — purchased with close to $7,000 in pennies contributed by schoolchildren.

Black, delighted that Baton Rouge was building a zoo, posed this question to his young viewers: “Since the grown-ups are taxing themselves for a zoo, why don’t we buy the biggest animal? And we’ll do it with pennies.” In only six months, children had donated enough pennies to buy an elephant, so Black ended the fundraising.

An outcry from the community forced him to continue gathering pennies for three more weeks.

“Lo and behold, we had money to buy two elephants,” Black said Friday in a phone interview.

Zoo officials purchased Penny and Penny Two from the Cleveland Zoo.

But Penny died of kidney failure and Penny Two was shipped to San Diego for behavioral reasons. Judy was one of the elephants brought into the Baton Rouge Zoo to fill the void.

People who wish to make a donation or provide a memorial gift in Judy’s name may send them to: Elephant Conservation Fund, Baton Rouge Zoo, P.O. Box 60, Baker, LA, 70704.