When zookeepers at the Sedgwick County Zoo went to the Veldt building at about 6:30 Wednesday morning, they found a heartbreaking scene.
Cinda, a 43-year-old African elephant, was dead. Her long-time companion, Stephanie, was trying to “wake her,” said Mark Reed, executive director of the zoo.
Cinda, among the original inhabitants of the zoo, led “basically a totally health-problem-free life,” Reed said Wednesday. “This summer we had some edema issues, but we changed her salt intake and were watching her diet.
“Yesterday she painted, and she stomped on pumpkins. Keepers reported she was having a great week and doing fine.”
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Her death comes in the midst of an effort by the zoo to raise about $5 million for construction of the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley habitat, which is scheduled to open in May 2016. The zoo has $900,000 left to raise in the public campaign. Construction has already begun on the $10.5 million project, the zoo’s biggest undertaking ever.
The project was spurred by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which said zoos it accredits that feature elephants must have at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender by September 2016. The zoo’s new exhibit includes an 18,000-square-foot barn, which was intended for the zoo’s two elephants and as many as seven more.
Sedgwick County commissioners voted in September to contribute $5.3 million to the project, despite opposition from commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn. Cinda’s death won’t alter the county’s commitment to the project, Peterjohn said Wednesday.
“The elephants are part of a popular exhibit,” Peterjohn said. “I don’t see making any changes in the near future. It is unfortunate she died, but the zoo is deeply involved now in construction.”
Cinda was observed by keepers as up and moving around at 3:30 Wednesday morning. The cause of her death is unknown, according to a news release issued by the zoo.
“We suspect she just dropped from a heart attack,” Reed said.
A necropsy – an autopsy performed on an animal – is expected to take up to two days. It is standard procedure for the zoo to do a necropsy to help determine an animal’s cause of death, Reed said.
Three veterinarians will conduct the necropsy on the 8,400-pound elephant. Many of her body parts – such as her heart, spleen and reproductive organs – have already been requested by researchers. Her skeleton will be sent to an Oklahoma museum that will make molds and casts of her bones.
Cinda and Stephanie were some of the first animals to become part of the Sedgwick County Zoo’s collection, arriving in Wichita in 1972. They were both brought as orphans from Kruger National Park in South Africa.
“They came over on a boat with a whole bunch of other animals,” Reed said. “They were picked up by the zoo at the docks in New York City.”
Cinda’s companion, Stephanie, also 43, is reported to be doing well. She remains calm.
For the past four decades, the two elephants have been linked inseparably – doing colorful paintings for visitors and patrons of the zoo and performing 80 different commands.
“Cinda was one of our iconic animals,” Reed said. “The public knows her by name. She’s been on our posters and calendars. She definitely was one of the most known animals in our collection.”
Only three or four other African elephants exist in the nation’s zoos who are older, Reed said. Elephants who live to be 38 years and older are considered old, he said.
“Two things that come from this,” Reed said: “One, the sadness and sorrow we have is the price we pay for working with these great animals.
“Two, they are no different than we are. We all have that incurable disease called aging.”
For the next four days, the zoo is expected to close the Veldt building, where the elephants are housed, to the public.