Zoo Knoxville to say goodbye to its elephants

Elephants Tonka and Edie. (Photo from Zoo Knoxville)

If you’re one of the many fans of Zoo Knoxville’s elephants, you might want to practice saying goodbye to the awe-inspiring beasts.

Soon, the zoo will be without any elephants for the first time since 1963 and it may be several years before another pachyderm calls Knoxville its home, officials said Monday.

The three African elephants currently living at Zoo Knoxville have grown old enough that they need to be cared for at a specialized facility, explained Zoo spokesperson Tina Rolen.

“Once they move, we will no longer have elephants but instead look at how we can utilize that space for other species that need our help,” said Rolen. “The new master plan does include elephants, but that will be dependent on community support, and the interim timeframe will be a few years to allow us time to raise funds and build out the habitat.”

African elephants Tonka, Jana, and Edie will be moved to The Elephant Sanctuary in Lewis County, which lies between Memphis and Nashville, according to Rolen.  

“Zoo Knoxville and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee are both accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), assuring the continuation of the highest standard of care for them.  The move will allow them to join a larger group of elephants, ensuring companionship for the three aging elephants as they enter the late stages of their lives,” Rolen said.

“Elephants have complex social needs and thrive with companionship.  All three of Zoo Knoxville’s elephants are senior citizens by elephant standards,” she continued. “Realizing that Knoxville’s herd will be facing inevitable losses in the near future, Zoo Knoxville began exploring options to ensure their social needs would be met for the remainder of their lives.”

The Elephant Sanctuary is the largest natural-habitat refuge in the United States for African and Asian elephants. Since opening in 1995, the 3,000-plus acre facility has  provided 28 elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being. 

“Tonka, Jana and Edie are beloved and treasured, and we will always put their wellbeing and happiness first,” said Zoo Knoxville president and CEO Lisa New.  

“Part of caring for each animal entrusted to us is having a life plan from birth to end of life,” she continued. “We are at the stage of that plan when we must now ensure our elephants are in an environment that allows them the social interactions they need as their long-time companions near the end of their lives.  It is a decision we did not take lightly, but we know ultimately it is the right one.” 

African elephants have been one of Zoo Knoxville’s most popular animals since 1963, when the Ringling Brothers Circus made a surprise donation to the zoo of a bull elephant named Big Diamond. 

“The community rallied and raised funds to build a home for him, and in 1978 the zoo welcomed the first two African elephants to be born in the Western Hemisphere,” Rolen said.  “Zoo Knoxville remains committed to that legacy.  The Zoo will be launching a new master plan soon that includes a vision for the future of elephants in Knoxville with the support of the community.”

The trio won’t be moved immediately, she said.  

“The timeline for the moves is dependent ultimately on the elephants themselves,” she explained. “Zoo Knoxville’s expert elephant caretakers will begin training Jana, Edie, and Tonka to voluntarily enter and stand in a travel crate with positive reinforcement.  When they are comfortable with this routine, females Jana and Edie will make the move first accompanied by their care staff and veterinarians, and be followed later in 2023 by male Tonka.”

Rolen promised that  Zoo Knoxville officials will keep the community informed about the elephants’ departure “so there is time to wish them farewell.”

Jana, one of Zoo Knoxville’s three African elephants, enjoys a meal. (Photo from Zoo Knoxville)

Published on August 23, 2022.



Published on August 23, 2022.