Rest in Peace, Frieda...
Animal Stories from


The Elephant Sanctuary
March 2015

Frieda was born wild in 1966, and at a very young age was captured and separated from her family to spend nearly four decades performing in America. Like many of the elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary, records pertaining to her early life are missing. She spent the majority of her years in "entertainment" traveling with the Clyde-Beatty Cole Brothers Circus.

Frieda elephant

It is with great sadness that The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee announces the passing of Frieda. The much loved 49-year-old Asian elephant came to The Sanctuary after a lifetime of performing. Frieda resided at The Sanctuary's Quarantine Barn & Habitat with her longtime companions, elephants Billie and Liz—known as “the threesome”—and their 'herd' mates Minnie, Ronnie and Debbie.

Frieda arrived to sanctuary in 2006, underweight and suffering from arthritis, osteomyelitis, and exposure to tuberculosis. Over the last few weeks, the progression of these chronic conditions and the associated pain worsened. Frieda was humanely euthanized on Monday afternoon. She passed away peacefully, surrounded by those who cared for and loved her. Billie and Liz were nearby.

“She will be missed very much,” said The Elephant Sanctuary CEO Janice Zeitlin. “Frieda was known for leading ‘the threesome’ down new paths; they often spent time in a favorite area of the Q Habitat lovingly known as ‘Frieda's Field.’ Staff and supporters are proud to have given Frieda the opportunity to explore The Elephant Sanctuary’s grassy meadows, wooded hillsides and ponds for nine years.”

After Frieda’s passing, companion elephants Billie and Liz were given an opportunity to say their goodbyes. Liz entered the barn first and spent a few minutes touching Frieda’s body. Billie then entered; she and Liz rumbled and squeaked toward each other. Liz stood over Frieda’s body, using her belly and feet to touch her lost friend, while Billie gently glided her trunk over Frieda’s face, trunk and legs.

About Frieda

Frieda was born wild in 1966, and at a very young age was captured and separated from her family to spend nearly four decades performing in America. Like many of the elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary, records pertaining to her early life are missing. She spent the majority of her years in entertainment traveling with the Clyde-Beatty Cole Brothers Circus.

One day in 1995, while she and the elephants in her performing company were being escorted across a crowded parking lot, Debbie (also a Sanctuary resident) dropped out of line and chased Frieda through the lot and toward a nearby Sears department store, where they smashed through a window, causing $20,000 in property damage. Because of this and a handful of other destructive incidents, Frieda gained a reputation as a “problem” elephant among her handlers.

In 1996, she and Debbie were sent to the Hawthorn Corporation, a company in Illinois that trained and leased elephants to circuses. Frieda’s reputation as a “problem” elephant prevented her from traveling to perform; she was kept isolated from other elephants while residing at the Hawthorn barn.

USDA later prosecuted the Hawthorn Corporation for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act involving inadequate care and mistreatment of elephants. [USDA’s settlement with the Hawthorn Corporation –as well as what life was like for circus elephants like Frieda– is covered in great detail in the nonfiction book, Last Chain on Billie by former investigative journalist Carol Bradley.] In 2003, Hawthorn elephant Delhi became the first captive elephant in American history to be seized from her owner for inhumane treatment (like Frieda, Delhi also arrived at the Sanctuary with advanced osteomyelitis). Then, in 2004, USDA took action to facilitate the transfer of elephants Lota and Misty to Tennessee. Finally in 2006, Frieda and Billie were the last of eight Hawthorn elephants to move from the Hawthorn facility in Illinois to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

When Frieda became the 22nd resident of The Elephant Sanctuary on February 9, 2006, she was significantly underweight. But within minutes of arrival, she demonstrated a healthy appetite by helping herself to Billie's “welcome” smorgasbord. Six months later—with the help of the Sanctuary’s abundant natural-habitat forage, and an individualized nutrition plan consisting of healthy elephant-dietary supplements, hay and produce—Frieda had gained over 1,000 lbs.

Frieda arrived with chronic foot and joint disease (arthritis and osteomyelitis)—incurable medical conditions, requiring long-term management, that unfortunately are common among performing elephants where much of their time is spent restricted to small spaces, standing in place on hard substrates that offer little relief to the joints supporting their massive weight. In the wild, elephants roam vast areas, often walking many miles a day. At The Elephant Sanctuary, Frieda was often the first to explore new areas of the habitat, encouraging her “herd” mates to follow.

Frieda elephant
Left to right - Liz, Billie, Frieda, January 2014

When the Q Habitat was expanded for elephants’ access in 2013, new meadows and forested hills awaited the threesome. Caregivers were excited—though not surprised—to see Frieda leading the way into the as-yet-unexplored areas. “Frieda rumbled,” recalls Caregiver Melanie, “and Liz and Billie followed.” Caregiver Diana added, “Frieda blazed the trail to her namesake field and spent the rest of the day and night there.” Frieda relaxing and walking in “Frieda’s Field" became a common sight around Sanctuary.

Frieda elephant
Frieda at “Frieda’s Field”

Mornings, when Caregivers would arrive at the Barns to prepare the Girls’ first meal of the day, they often found Billie and Liz still near the barns...but then looked around to see Frieda off exploring the hillsides of the adjacent habitat. She even devised her own innovative, downhill shortcut to rejoin Billie and Liz for breakfast.

Frieda elephant
“The Frieda Slide”

“Frieda was known for taking the road less traveled,” says Caregiver Brianna.

Sanctuary residents Billie, Liz and Frieda all lived together while owned by the Hawthorn Corporation, but were kept chained, unable to socialize in ways that would be healthy and normal for female elephants. Sanctuary enabled their friendship to flourish: they were seldom seen apart, and when “reunited” after even the shortest separation, Frieda would make her trademark “whale” vocalization. Lead Caregiver Justina described her as the “glue” that bonded the threesome, where Liz and Billie would tend to follow Frieda’s lead when it came to exploring The Sanctuary.

Final Days

“Arthritis and osteomyelitis in the feet and legs are among the leading reasons for mortality in captive elephants,” said The Sanctuary’s Director of Veterinary Care, Dr. Steven Scott. “These incurable diseases—mostly caused by an elephant’s inability to lead a natural life in captivity—result in degeneration of the bones and the joints that support them.”

Noting the progression of the disease and Frieda's decrease in physical activity over the last few weeks, The Sanctuary’s Veterinary and Husbandry Team monitored Frieda's response to medical care and treatments around the clock. She was cooperative and responsive, remaining in the restful setting of Q’s newly-renovated Phase I barn, where there’s a soft sand substrate, natural light and radiant heat for her comfort. Care staff also added enrichment and appropriately-timed opportunities to socialize with her best friends, Billie and Liz.

“Frieda and Liz spent many hours and overnights together over these last weeks, quietly eating next to one another. Liz gave Frieda many trunk-touches during this time,” said Caregiver Diana. In her final days, Frieda's appetite began to wane and her interest in socializing lessened.

TThe Elephant Sanctuary is grateful to Dr. Ed Ramsey and Dr. Ryan Sadler from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, as well as the Knoxville Zoo for their assistance and support. Pathologists from the University of Georgia will perform the necropsy as required; thanks go also to Dr. Rita McManaman, UGA’s Director of Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology, for leading the necropsy team.

Biographic information obtained from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Asian Elephant Studbook, Elephant Sanctuary staff, and other external sources.

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