The Elephant Sanctuary Honors the Life of Asian Elephant Nichole

Nichole arrived March 9, 2023, with a long history of chronic foot disease and osteomyelitis. These health issues were compounded by more recent diagnosis of degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, and septic arthritis. Nichole’s conditions impacted her quality of life and, combined with her age, set a grave prognosis. Due to irreversible progression of these health issues and the increasing pain associated, Nichole was humanely euthanized on April 20, 2023.

Nichole (Nicky) was born in Myanmar (Burma) in 1975 as part of a herd that worked in Burmese timber camps. These government-run camps utilized captive and wild elephants for labor to extract and move large timber. In 1980, Nichole was imported to the United States and spent the next several decades performing and on exhibition as part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey traveling circus.

In 2016, Nichole moved to San Antonio Zoo in Texas, where she became one of three female elephants known as the “Golden Girls.” After the passing of Nichole’s two companions, Karen and Lucky, in 2022, San Antonio Zoo made the decision to transfer Nichole to The Sanctuary to provide her with continued social and herd opportunities.

In planning for her move to Tennessee, the San Antonio Zoo and The Sanctuary’s Veterinary and Care Teams worked collaboratively to ensure continuity of care, including multimodal pain control, antibiotics, and strategic foot care. Nichole’s chronic health conditions date back more than 20 years, and the progression limited her mobility and impacted her ability to lie down. The Sanctuary’s Facilities and Care Staff made many barn and habitat modifications in preparation for her arrival: adding sand on rocky trails throughout her habitat to make it easier to explore her space and adding support structures in her barn so she could take pressure off her feet. She was also provided access to a “lean-to” rest aid made with recycled firehose woven together, which hung floor to ceiling, creating a giant “vertical hammock” that allowed Nichole to lean against and rest.

The Sanctuary’s Husbandry and Veterinary Team worked diligently with our newest herd mate Nichole, constantly modifying her individualized care plan, ensuring her foot treatments were consistent and brought her comfort. Her care was provided by a team comprised of Director of Veterinary Care, Veterinarian, Registered Veterinary Technician, Elephant Care Manager, and full-time Caregivers. The Sanctuary also consulted with outside expert veterinarians and other specialists to provide a new perspective on Nichole’s condition. Individualized care for Nichole included physical therapy, multimodal pain and anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics, cold laser therapy, CO2 therapy, and medicated foot soaks.

On the morning of April 20th, Nichole’s health rapidly declined as her Care Staff and Veterinary Staff worked to provide support and comfort. It was quickly determined that her front feet and legs could not support her, and medications no longer controlled the pain. The Sanctuary’s Vet Staff, in consultation with Care Staff and the team at San Antonio Zoo, discussed quality of life and the irreversible worsening of her health issues. The difficult decision was made, and Nichole was humanely euthanized at 3:37 PM with her dedicated Care Staff remaining nearby.

“Although it is absolutely the hardest part of the work we do, we are committed to ensuring that geriatric elephants are provided with comfort and dignity. Nichole won our hearts within hours of arrival. We all desperately wished for her to have years and years to experience and explore The Sanctuary, with new friends,” says Dr. Lydia Young, DVM- The Elephant Sanctuary.

As the Facilities Team prepared the burial site, three pathologists from the University of Georgia joined Staff to perform the required necropsy. Complete findings will not be available for several weeks. Preliminary findings noted severe foot disease, advanced degenerative joint disease, and a large abdominal tumor.

Sissy Nichole

“We are so heartbroken to lose Nichole. She was only with us for a brief time, but it did not take long to love her. She was a very sweet elephant with a lot of spunk and resilience,” says Kristy Eaker, Senior Manager – Elephant Care. “She loved resting in the sunshine and spent her last day soaking in the warmth on the barn patio. We were so hopeful that she would make some progress, but it gives us great comfort that she is finally at rest.”

At The Sanctuary, Nichole was introduced to herd mates Sissy and Nosey. Nichole was known to be a welcoming elephant, eager for social opportunities. Upon meeting Sissy for the first time through a fence line barrier in the barn, she demonstrated this by touching Sissy with her trunk. Sissy, sometimes more reserved during introductions, allowed Nichole to smell and touch her before walking away. Staff had observed Sissy and Nichole spending time eating hay and produce near each other. Caregivers listened to their communications, with Sissy popping her trunk and Nichole thumping hers on the ground.

Nosey was seen reaching with her trunk through the fence to greet Nichole and recently spent hours relaxing next to Nichole along the fence. Staff noted that when Sissy and Nosey interacted, Nichole often observed and listened with one ear out, even rumbling and smacking her trunk on the ground in apparent excitement. We are hopeful that both Sissy and Nosey brought Nichole comfort in her final days.

“It is with a heavy heart that we make this announcement. The Sanctuary is thankful for the opportunity to spend time with Nichole, to witness her strength and perseverance. We would like to thank all our professional colleagues who answered our call for help and information to best meet her needs in her end-of-life care,” says Janice Zeitlin, CEO of The Elephant Sanctuary.

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