By Jennifer Brooks on
When Kiba the elephant died, the rest of her herd mourned — human and elephant alike.
The Nashville Zoo was forced to euthanize the 26-year-old African elephant on Thursday. Kiba suffered from a degenerative joint injury that was crippling her with pain.
Afterward, her human caretakers said their goodbyes, then opened the doors to the rest of her herd, 25-year-old Sukari and 27-year-old Hadari.
"It was pretty beautiful," said Connie Philipp, the zoo's director of animal collections, reduced to tears by the memory. "Sukari went over to touch and feel her. She was very slow and gentle. She stood over her, to protect her, and she stood guard for some time, occasionally touching her with her trunk."
For 14 years, Kiba has been a fixture at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. Born in Zimbabwe around 1984, she was shipped to America and spent her youth bouncing between roadside attractions and sideshows. At some point, she acquired the ankle injury that eventually would kill her.
Chuck and Risé Pankow rescued her from the sideshows and brought her to the zoo in 1995, where they continued as her caretakers for the rest of her life. They remember her as a gentle, friendly creature.
Knowing the end was near, zoo staff lavished Kiba with treats in her final days, including her favorites — sweet melons and doughnuts.
"I'm happy she got to be with us and I'm happy we got to be with her," said Philipp, who is making plans to bring a new elephant to the zoo to restore balance to Kiba's small herd.
She'll be buried on the zoo grounds with her favorite toys — including the shovel and rake she loved to filch from her caretakers. Her headstone will be a boulder that Philipp picked out for her, one that is "as big and strong and beautiful" as Kiba was.