SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The Santa Barbara Zoo confirmed Thursday morning that its last elephant, Little Mac, has passed away.
Officials say people were lined up outside their gates Thursday, before the zoo opened, just to catch a glimpse at Little Mac.
"It’s was really heartbreaking to learn on Tuesday that she was in hospice," said Sierra Mullenary of Goleta.
After 47 years, the Santa Barbara Zoo has lost its last beloved elephant, many consider her to be a member of the zoo family, a patriarch.
"Seeing Suzi and Little Mac every time I came was a heartwarming thing to see and know their story and part of their family," said Mullenary.
As Mullenary chokes back tears, Bobbie Eisenhood pauses to reflect at the now empty exhibit yard.
"I guess you just get attached when you visit and you see something several times a week for many many years," said Eisenhood, Santa Barbara.
Eisenhood has nannied for decades and like so many, she and her kids felt a personal connection to the zoo’s last remaining Asian elephant.
"I think people think of elephants very personally, I do. I think because a lot of people know how they are worked and they are used throughout the world and how they do relate to people, so I don’t know, it became a personal thing," said Eisenhood.
The zoo just announced this week that the Asian elephant was receiving hospice care and was in rapidly declining health. Our crews saw Little Mac on Tuesday and she looked well.
The zoo says Little Mac was humanely euthanized Wednesday around 7 p.m. in her exhibit yard, surrounded by her keepers and other zoo staff members who took care of her during her time there.
"Last night we reached a point where we felt it was necessary to humanely euthanize her as the most compassionate, respectful decision that we could make for her," said Julie Barnes, VP of Animal Care, Santa Barbara Zoo.
Little Mac first arrived at the zoo in 1972 with her companion, Sujatha.
Sujatha died in October of last year, and the zoo had been keeping close tabs on Little Mac following Sujatha's death.
In recent months, the zoo said Little Mac suffered from gastrointestinal issues and had lost weight.
The zoo said she also had low activity levels, loss of appetite, and wasn't as engaged in training.
Little Mac was 48 years old. The median life expectancy for Asian elephants in human care is 46.9 years.
Little Mac's body was removed by a crane and taken to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino where a necropsy, or animal autopsy, will be done Thursday. The results will take several weeks, but the zoo says this will contribute to research on the health and welfare of elephants who are under human care.
"It’s really important that we get that information because that definitely contributes to our greater understanding of the elephants, elephant medicine and elephant welfare," said Barnes.
It's that greater understanding that zoo patrons hope to pass down to a younger generation.
"Animals mean a lot to us. Studying them and making sure that they are well taken care of and being good protectors of the earth is an important thing to learn, I want my kid to learn that as well," said Mullenary.
The zoo's elephant program ends with Little Mac, as the zoo can no longer meet the standards and requirements of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for elephant exhibits.
"Had Little Mac's health not declined, we may have been looking at moving her to another AZA accredited facility or an elephant sanctuary," said Dr. Julie Barnes, the Zoo's vice president of animal care and health. "The behavioral study suggested that she likely had the ability to cope with the changes associated with such a move and with being introduced to other elephants."