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Happy birthday, Shirley! Adored elephant survived 1963 Yarmouth circus ship fire

Preparations underway to lift elephants from the circus ship Fleurus to safety. Bob Brooks Photo
Preparations underway to lift elephants from the circus ship Fleurus to safety. Bob Brooks Photo - Contributed

July 6 party planned for 70-year-old elephant at Yarmouth County Museum

YARMOUTH, N.S. - A birthday party celebrating a much beloved survivor of the 1963 circus ship fire in Yarmouth Harbour will be held at the Yarmouth County Museum & Archives on July 6.

Shirley, an Asian elephant, was one of many exotic animals aboard the Fleurus, a ship that arrived in Yarmouth in rough shape.

A young boy watches as elephants drink from a barrel aboard the circus ship Fleurus in 1963. Bob Brooks Photo
A young boy watches as elephants drink from a barrel aboard the circus ship Fleurus in 1963. Bob Brooks Photo

Shirley’s hardships

On the morning of the ship’s departure, the vessel caught fire and a large crane was used to remove caged animals. Shirley sustained severe burns to her back and legs, and to this day is missing a large part of her right ear as a result of the fire. She continued to be used as a circus performer after the fire.

Years later her right hind leg was broken in an altercation with another elephant while traveling with the Lewis Brothers Circus. Several bones in her leg fused together, creating an abnormal angle and shape. She performed for two more years at the time and was sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, LA. She was the sole elephant at the zoo for 22 years.

On July 6, 1999, Shirley became the fourth resident of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, joining Tarra, Jenny, and Barbara.

The birthday party at the Yarmouth County Museum

Shirley’s 70th birthday party (a free event) at the Yarmouth County Museum will start at 2 p.m. on July 6 with a webinar with Elephant Sanctuary caregivers answering questions. The museum will also be showing a video of Shirley’s reunion with another elephant, named Jenny, when she arrived at the sanctuary.

“Shirley survived the circus life, survived the Fleuris ship fire, and has survived all these years so it’s only fitting we have a party in her honour,” says curator Nadine Gates.

There will be birthday cake, punch, and some of Shirley’s favourite treats (watermelon, bananas and more).

“Shirley loves to eat,” says Gates.

Of course, Shirley won’t be at the party herself.

Birthday celebrations at The Elephant Sanctuary

Todd Montgomery, the volunteer and outreach manager at The Elephant Sanctuary, says Shirley’s birthday will be celebrated there as well.

“Obviously, an elephant turning 70 is sort of a big deal. We’re going to give her some special treatment,” he says.

The birthday of sanctuary elephants is celebrated on the anniversary of their arrival dates at the sanctuary.

“Shirley was born in the wild so we don’t know the day that she was born but her record indicates that she was born in 1948. July 6 is the date she retired here back in 1999. That’s been her unofficial birthdate ever since,” he says.

In addition to the July 6 webinar, caretakers will probably be doing other web-based events that day for other groups around the country.

Shirley will also be the topic of the day on July 14, the date of the monthly program at the sanctuary’s Discovery Centre. There will be games and activities for families and a chat with Shirley’s caregivers  

“Her birthday gives us an opportunity to look back at her life and all the milestones that she’s been through –  to just really marvel at what an amazing individual she is and everything that we’ve been able to learn from her,” said Montgomery.

He believes the oldest elephant in North America is 72.

“Seventy is getting up there. Shirley is certainly a senior elephant citizen at this point. She’s sort of at the top range of an elephant. She’s far older than the median life expectancy for Asian elephants in captivity,” he says.

Shirley and Jenny, her best friend, at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. (Screenshot from video)
Shirley and Jenny, her best friend, at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. (Screenshot from video)

Shirley’s health

Montgomery adds that Shirley’s health is good.

“Things change with elephants, as with humans, as she gets older. Bones change, muscles change, the immune system changes,” he says.

Shirley is slower now than she was five or 10 years ago and caretakers are seeing her show her age a bit, which is certainly to be expected, he says.

“Other than that, she’s doing remarkably well. Throughout the course of her time at the Sanctuary and even now, she’s a very tough and resilient elephant.”

As Shirley grows older she’s being provided with treatment for arthritis and other issues common with aging elephants in captivity.

“But Shirley is dealing with those and moving right along,” says Montgomery.

Feeding the elephants

There are 11 elephants at the Sanctuary, all with individualized care and treatment plans.

Shirley has a “really healthy appetite” for an elephant of her age. This time of year she enjoys grazing on different types of grass, bamboo and other vegetation.

She eats anywhere from 150 to 180 pounds of vegetation each day, an amount that is “pretty good” for an elephant of her size and age.

Some of the bigger elephants eat upwards of 200 pounds each day.

Bananas are her favourite. The sanctuary recently had students from a local library reading program visit, each with banana in hand.

Shirley and Jenny

When Shirley retired at the sanctuary in 1999, Jenny, a younger elephant, was already a resident. Their behaviour towards each other was something caretakers had never seen before.

To their surprise and delight, after researching their transfer and ownership records, they learned that the two elephants’ time together had overlapped in a circus, decades earlier.

“They immediately became very close. They began to interact not as elephants getting to know each other but as old companions. We referred to them as best friends,” says Montgomery.

Sadly, Jenny passed away a few years later. Shirley’s behaviour was a little bit different for a few days. She seemed to spend a little more time alone, then began socializing with some of the other elephants after a while.

“It sounds sad but it’s also admirable at the same time,” says Montgomery.

“One of the downsides of being a long-lived elephant is you say good-bye to lots of other elephants. Shirley, with everything she’d been through, I think she was a really great companion to Jenny and vice versa. When the time came to say good-bye to Jenny, I think that was something that Shirley was able to do and then move on with her life.

“It’s easy for us to say, ‘Well, I wonder how they handle this.’ but that’s looking at it wrong. I think that Shirley and Jenny and all the other elephants probably know a lot more about one another than we could ever comprehend.

Sometimes it’s best to just observe and do the best that we can.”

Reflections

Montgomery says Shirley will always be intricately connected to Yarmouth because of the occurrences of 1963.

“As someone who works with the sanctuary it’s really affirming and incredible for us to hear from so many people in your region who were affected by that event and still have this love for Shirley, nearly a lifetime later,” he says.

“I think it speaks a lot to the majesty of these animals and the character of Shirley who is absolutely fantastic and amazing in every way. We’re thrilled to continue that relationship,” he says.

“She is adored – and adored isn’t a strong enough word – by legions of fans all around the world, everywhere from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Tennessee and everywhere in between and beyond.”

For more information

Visit the Elephant Sanctuary website to watch Shirley live on the elecam (Click on Asian elephant habitat)

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