Penney the elephant was a favorite at the Kansas City Zoo for 40 years after coming here as a “mail order bride,” and she helped inspire a popular book and movie.
But on Tuesday the four-ton animal was euthanized after it became clear she was losing her battle with arthritis and old age.
Penney had long been arthritic and was being given ibuprofen, but her condition worsened over the last month and a half. Zookeepers upped her pain medication and were feeding her packed balls of grain and giving her water with a hose. But Monday night she did not eat at all.
“She wasn’t using her trunk, she wasn’t holding her head up, she wasn’t eating her grain,” said Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff. “The last couple of days she had just given up.”
At an estimated age of 51, Penney was the oldest elephant at the zoo and the second oldest female, or cow, elephant among zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
But she was not the dominant one among the Kansas City Zoo’s seven females. She was not the one known for her painting. She was a little aloof, but she enjoyed watermelons and pumpkins and crushed candy canes during the holiday season.
Penney was distinguished by her very long tusks — about four feet — and her truncated trunk. The bottom 10 inches were cut off in a 1985 accident with a hydraulic gate while she was reaching for an apple. That required keepers to feed her until she healed and learned to adapt.
Penney was born in the wild in Africa in about 1961 and taken into captivity, back when that was still done.
She was living at the Nelson Park Zoo in Abilene, Texas, when Lady A, a cow at the Kansas City Zoo, died in 1971. That left Casey A, Kansas City’s big bull, without a mate. A deal was struck in which Kansas City would purchase a young elephant for Abilene in exchange for Penney. A community campaign organized by the Friends of the Zoo, in which children contributed “Pennies for Penney,” raised more than $7,000.
When Penney arrived, she was treated as a “mail order bride” for Casey but she never had a calf. Casey died in 2003 at the estimated age of 52.
Penney was credited with being part of the inspiration for the book, later a movie, “Water for Elephants.” Author Sara Gruen spent time observing Kansas City’s elephants and was particularly charmed by Penney.
All the zoo’s elephants benefited when voters approved $50 million in bonds that allowed the creation of one of North America’s largest zoo elephant exhibits in 1994.
Elephants in captivity are prone to arthritis and other foot and leg ailments. But Kansas City’s 4 1/2-acre exhibit allows the elephants to spend their days on grass and dirt instead of concrete. They have access to a sand pit in their holding pen, and their barn has floors heated with circulating water.
Zoo veterinarian Kirk Suedmeyer had been collecting weekly blood samples from Penney but they showed no indication of infection or other problems. Tissue samples will be sent for a necropsy, and her body will be buried on zoo grounds.