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"Charismatic icon" Petal, oldest African elephant in U.S., dies at Philly Zoo at age 52

Petal, the oldest African elephant in an American zoo, died yesterday at the age of 52 at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Petal, with handler Mark Grunwald, at the zoo in 2006.
Petal, with handler Mark Grunwald, at the zoo in 2006.Read moreFile photo

Petal, the oldest African elephant in an American zoo, died yesterday at the age of 52 at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Petal, born in Tanzania and a resident of the zoo since 1957, was found by zoo staff lying on her side at about 7 a.m. yesterday, said Andrew Baker, vice president for animal programs.

"It was clear that something was wrong because Petal usually sleeps standing up," Baker said.

"We spent a couple of hours trying to get her up on her feet and weren't successful and she passed away at about 9:15," Baker said.

A necropsy, an animal autopsy, will be performed on Petal to determine a cause of death. Results are expected in the next couple of weeks, Baker said.

Petal - who weighed 9,200 pounds, was 12 feet long and close to 9 feet tall - was scheduled to be moved to the Pittsburgh Zoo's new 724-acre International Conservation Center in Fairhope, Somerset County, by the end of the summer.

The decision was made to move the elephants because there is not enough money to build a larger habitat for them here.

The fact that the elephants were still at the zoo is something that Marianne Bessey, leader of the Friends of Philadelphia Zoo Elephants, said caused Petal's premature death.

"I question that a healthy elephant would collapse and die like that," Bessey said.

"Petal's death highlights that zoo-industry conditions prematurely kill elephants," she said.

Baker countered that Petal's death is hardly premature because Petal surpassed an average elephant life span of 45.

"Her health had been good throughout her time here at the zoo, as far we could tell," Baker said.

Petal's elephant friends, Kallie and Bette, 25 and 24 respectively, were to join her at the Pittsburgh conservation center later in the summer, Baker said.

Kallie and Bette, whose behavior is being monitored because of their close bonds with Petal, are still scheduled to go to the conservation center once the construction is completed.

If the zoo receives money for construction of a new habitat, Baker said, it would not be out of the question to get Kallie and Bette back to Philadelphia.

Baker said that Petal, who never had any children, was a dignified elephant.

"She was confident of her position within the group, and now in her older years was very even-tempered and calm," Baker said.

"Her passing is an event that does have some national impact because she was the oldest African elephant in the United States, but it also has a local impact that will be felt as well," Baker added.

"This is an animal that people grew up with and who is known across multiple generations," Baker said.

"Petal is a charismatic icon whose loss will be felt both inside and outside the zoo." *