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An elephant at Riverbanks Zoo has died

Riverbanks Zoo elephants seen as coworkers rather than exhibits

Elephant manager Andrea Mueller goes over care shown to elephants at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C.
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Elephant manager Andrea Mueller goes over care shown to elephants at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C.

Robin, Riverbanks Zoo’s eldest elephant, has died.

“It is with heavy hearts that we share the sad news of the passing of one of Riverbanks’ two African elephants,” the zoo posted on its Instagram account.

The post said the elephant passed away unexpectedly overnight. The elephants, Robin and Belle, had been scheduled to be shipped to another zoo.

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“Robin had a lot of spunk and acted half her age,” John Davis, director of animal care and welfare at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, said. “At 49, she lived well beyond her life expectancy because of the tremendous care she received throughout her life. We love her, and we will miss her.”

The zoo’s elephant exhibit will be closed Thursday.

Both Robin and 37-year-old Belle are considered older for female African elephants living in managed populations, whose average life is 17 years for those born in zoos, National Geographic reported.

The plan to move both elephants to a new herd in another zoo was to enable them to be part of “a larger group in a more social environment,” Riverbanks said in June.

Belle came to Riverbanks from the Columbus Zoo in 2001 and Robin in 2007 from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, according to Riverbanks. They are among 13 African elephants that have lived at the zoo since 1973.

A little more than two years ago, the zoo had four female African elephants.

On May 4, 2017, Robin and Belle’s herdmate, Penny, stumbled, fell and could not get back up, The State reported.

Zoo veterinarians and vet techs were signaled by Robin and Belle who “called and trumpeted” while staying by Penny’s side as she struggled to get up, according to The State. Officials made the decision to “humanely” euthanize the 37-year-old elephant.

There were no signs that Penny was ailing, according to zoo officials. That was not the case in December of 2016, when another of the zoo’s elephants that was suffering from medical issues was euthanized, The State reported.

The 44-year-old Petunia was afflicted with arthritis and some colic, according to zoo officials who euthanized the elephant after she was unable to stand.

Following Petunia’s death, zoo staff allowed the other members of the herd to “visit her body, to mourn her passing in their own way,” because of the tight social structures elephants create in their communities, according to The State.

After the elephants leave, the zoo plans to reintroduce and breed Southern white rhinos, a species last seen at Riverbanks in 1989. The new Southern white rhino exhibit is scheduled to open to the public in a year, in time for the summer of 2020, zoo officials said.

The only land mammal larger than white rhinos are elephants, according to the zoo.

Animals at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden enjoy the annual "Pumpkin Smash" on Nov. 5, 2016, where the baboons, elephants, otters, bears and more enjoy smashing and eating the popular fall fruit. (Video by Rob Thompson)

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.
Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.