Santa Barbara Zoo officials announced Tuesday that Little Mac, the zoo’s 48-year-old Asian elephant, is now receiving hospice care following a sharp decline in her health over the past two weeks. Mac has been suffering from gastrointestinal issues since a bout of colic in mid-June, has lost weight, and is showing lower energy levels, officials said. Recent tests detected blood in her dung. She also suffers from chronic arthritis, a condition common to old elephants.
“After exhausting treatment options, she is being kept comfortable for as long as possible,” said zoo spokesperson Julia McHugh in a press statement. “Little Mac’s hospice care includes treating her symptoms, providing her with drugs to increase her comfort, and engaging her with her usual training, if she chooses.”
Zoo CEO Rich Block said it’s time to “start considering euthanasia as a compassionate and respectful option for her. We’ve gone public about this to allow all of us to begin to cope with her passing.” Block said the zoo has asked VNA Health (formerly Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care) to provide guidance for staff and guests in dealing with the anticipated grief.
Mac’s decline comes just under a year after the death of her companion, a 47-year-old Asian elephant named Sujatha. “Little Mac initially was doing very well and showing good behavioral indicators of coping well with being on her own,” said Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s director of animal care and health. “Unfortunately, we have been grappling with increasing medical problems that affect her health, behavior, and overall well-being. We held out hope that she would bounce back, but her bad days now greatly outnumber her good days.”
An Asian elephant is considered geriatric around the age of 40. At 48, Little Mac has exceeded the median life expectancy for Asian elephants in human care, which is 46.9 years.
In the nearly 50 years since Little Mac and Sujatha arrived at the Santa Barbara Zoo, standards for elephant management have changed dramatically. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums now requires larger exhibits than the Santa Barbara Zoo can accommodate, as well as breeding bulls. This means Little Mac will very likely be Central California’s last elephant. “We are looking ahead at a time of change,” said Block. “We will keep the public informed as this process takes shape.”