A few days after Christmas 1960, Sumter Lowry, Jr, the son of the park’s namesake, presented a special Christmas gift to the city of Tampa. Lowry had purchased a baby elephant from Thailand. Her arrival was front-page news. In February 1961, she was given the name Shena, complements of a public naming contest. She was just eighteen months old when she arrived at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.
In the years that followed, a modest building was constructed to serve as a shelter. Her small yard was surrounded by railroad rails that were welded to concrete pillars. There she would live for the next two decades until our 1984 master plan called for the demolition of her exhibit and the construction of a new, larger space in the same location. In order to build her new facilities, she would need to be moved to another zoo for a few years.
After searching far and wide, we found a good facility at African Lion Safari near Toronto, Canada, that would take her. They had proper facilities, other elephants, and a highly competent staff. A deal was struck that would send her to Canada and bring her back when her new home was completed. All we had to do was figure out how to get her there. I described the process in my article for the zoo’s newsletter in the fall of 1985:
Though highly trained, Shena had not been handled in over ten years. She had become quite unmanageable and even dangerous to those who worked around her. But after a few days with the experienced elephant handler, Charles Gray, she was performing all of her old tricks and even seemed to enjoy the change in routine and the companionship of her handler. The next problem was how to get her out of the enclosure. So complete was Shena’s incarceration, that there was not even a gate into her enclosure. Our friendly workmen moved in with their cutting torches and bulldozers, and after nearly an hour of cutting the heavy iron rails, an opening was made in the pen.
The next problem we faced was the uncertainty of Shena’s reactions to her newfound freedom. Would she respond to her handler’s commands, or would she run away at the first opportunity? The moment of truth arrived. As Shena walked out of her pen for the first time in nearly 15 years, it became obvious that she was happy to be outside and yet very responsive to her handler. She quickly gained his confidence and was soon allowed to wander happily around and explore the zoo she had lived in for most of her life. The rest of her loading and transporting was so uneventful as to appear routine. But that was not the end of the story.
In order to make transportation less traumatic, another elephant was brought from Canada to keep her company. A large male Asian elephant named “Buke” became the first elephant ever to share Shena’s enclosure. Though she was coy to his advances at first and turned her back whenever he came close, she soon warmed up and remained close by his side as they explored the zoo grounds.
At the time of Shena’s transfer, the zoo had been cleared for construction and most of the cages and sidewalks were gone. The elephants had space to wander, plenty of sand to throw on themselves, and few opportunities to get into trouble. Buke was an impressive beast with massive tusks. He seemed gentle enough, responding to his handlers like an anxious child as the two elephants wandered the property untethered. He was so gentle that I took a photo of my twelve-year-old son, Jason, riding on his back. The next time I saw Buke, he was in his home in Canada later that summer. He was in musth (a period when bull elephants are sexually active and very aggressive) and chained to a tree–ready to kill anyone who came too near.
Shena did well in Canada, and we were pleased later that summer when we learned that breeding was taking place. Our hopes were dashed, however, when we received word that she had died of heart failure on January 17, 1986. We should not have been surprised.
Elephants in the wild walk for miles every day. They thrive on exercise. Shena’s exercise for the past few decades in Tampa was limited to the small enclosure she inhabited. Though it was gratifying to see her roaming the zoo site with her new companion, I suspect the sudden burst of activity and interaction with other elephants that resulted from her move to Canada was probably more than her debilitated heart could handle. The only consolation was that the last few months of her life were probably some of her happiest.
Shena wasn’t the only longtime Lowry Park Zoo resident that had to undergo some life-changing experiences. But the next story has a much happier ending.
Next week: Herman and Gitta Walk on Grass