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The Memphis Zoo mourns the loss of oldest African elephant in North America

"Ty has taught me more about fairness and trust than any being I’ve ever met,” said Winbigler.
Credit: Memphis Zoo

MEMPHIS, Tenn — Memphis Zoo is extremely saddened to announce the death of one of its beloved elephants.

Tyranza, or Ty as she was affectionately called, died Friday after her health began to dramatically decline. As zookeepers and veterinarians noticed her decline, she was put on Zoo hospice care to closely monitor her health and keep her as comfortable as possible. Out of the Zoo’s deep love for this animal, the decision was made to humanely euthanize her to avoid any suffering. 

Tyranza was the oldest African elephant in North America at 56 and she set the record for longest-lived African elephant in North America as well. When Ty reached her golden years, keepers and veterinary staff regularly adjusted her exhibit and daily routine, but she remained a formidable presence in the barn as well as in our herd until the end. 

Ty was born in the wild in 1964, where it is believed she was orphaned. After a short stint as a circus elephant with Ringling Brothers, she was retired to Memphis Zoo in 1977. She was 12 years old at the time. 

Former associate curator, Houston Winbigler was one of the first to meet Ty when she arrived in Memphis and he worked with her for almost 40 years. According to Winbigler, it took Ty some time to get used to her new home. 

“Through consistency and fairness, Ty quickly settled into a routine that included a permanent home and only three regular Keepers. After a couple of years of working with Ty we were able to become friends and she remains one of my most valued friends,” said Winbigler. 

For the last 43 years Tyranza has been the matriarch of the Zoo’s elephant herd. 

“Many generations of Zoo fans and even some employees haven’t known a Memphis Zoo without Tyranza. She was the toughest marshmallow you could ever meet. I will miss her calm steady presence,” said Matt Thompson, Chief Zoological Officer. 

Ty’s favorite treats included watermelons, sycamore leaves, bananas, and the occasional jellybean. Thompson adds that Ty was very territorial and did not like even a small bird landing in her exhibit, but she did take interest in the rhinos who once lived in the exhibit next door. She was seen on multiple occasions giving the rhinos a back scratch with her trunk. 

“Ty is a very wise and intelligent being. She is a master of reading people and is capable of completely humiliating the arrogant or comforting the humble. I have worked with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. I have also closely worked around ten elephants. There is something, a knowing presence and mental acuity that Ty possessed that was unique. Ty has taught me more about fairness and trust than any being I’ve ever met,” said Winbigler.

Visitors who would like to pay their respects may leave cards and flowers at the elephant statue on the Zoo’s front plaza starting Saturday, September 5th .