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Zoo Knoxville to move its 3 elephants to sanctuary in Middle Tennessee

The zoo said the aging elephants will join a larger group to give the three companionship as they enter the late stages of their lives.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Zoo Knoxville made a major announcement Monday that it would be moving its African elephants to a sanctuary in Middle Tennessee.

The zoo said its three elephants -- Tonka, Jana and Edie -- will be moving to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which is located in Hohenwald. 

The move will not be immediate. The zoo said the timeline will be dependent on the elephants themselves, saying their caretakers are working to train the three on how to voluntarily enter and stand in a travel crate with positive reinforcement. Once they are comfortable with the routine, Jana and Edie will be the first to move, followed by Tonka later in 2023.

The zoo said it will keep people up to date on their departure so there is time to say goodbye.

"The move will allow them to join a larger group of elephants, ensuring companionship for the three aging elephants as they enter the late stages of their lives," the zoo said. "Elephants have complex social needs and thrive with companionship. All three of Zoo Knoxville’s elephants are senior citizens by elephant standards. Realizing that Knoxville’s herd will be facing inevitable losses in the near future, Zoo Knoxville began exploring options to ensure their social needs would be met for the remainder of their lives."

The zoo said it made the decision to transfer the three into the sanctuary's care after looking at what's best for their wellbeing. It said the Louisville Zoo, which loaned Jana to the care of Zoo Knoxville in 1998, supported the decision.

"In addition to the high standard of care that is assured at an AZA-accredited facility, continuity of veterinary care in close consultation with U.T. College of Veterinary Medicine, the range of companionship they can provide, and the short amount of travel required for the move were decisive factors," the zoo said. 

The zoo said it will soon launch a new master plan that includes a vision for the future of elephants in Knoxville with the support of the community.

“Tonka, Jana and Edie are beloved and treasured, and we will always put their wellbeing and happiness first,” said Lisa New, Zoo Knoxville president and CEO. “Part of caring for each animal entrusted to us is having a life plan from birth to end of life. We are at the stage of that plan when we must now ensure our elephants are in an environment that allows them the social interactions they need as their long-time companions near the end of their lives. It is a decision we did not take lightly, but we know ultimately it is the right one.”

In 2011, Edie the elephant killed one of her keepers at the zoo after she pushed the woman into a steel beam. At the time, TOSHA fined the zoo for not taking the necessary steps to provide a safe workplace. TOSHA investigators said they believed previous incidents with Edie should have prompted the zoo to manage her differently to protect her keepers. The zoo disagreed, saying it took precautions to protect its employees.

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