LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - September has been a hard month at the Little Rock Zoo. On September 8th the zoo had to euthanize one of its two Asian elephants. A week later one of the zoo's black rhinos was found dead in its exhibit.
"It's probably the hardest week I've ever been through and pretty much the same goes for my staff," said Little Rock Zoo Elephant Manager Christine DelTurco. "I mean, we spend most of our day here, all day every day with these guys and to have them go down right in front of you and have them make the choice is, I think, really, really heart wrenching."
According to national statistics both animals lived well beyond their life expectancies. Zoo staff say they're proud to know that they gave them the best possible care and attention. DelTurco was with Jewell, the zoo's 62-year-old elephant, when she died.
"Just being there and standing there the whole time right next to her, it's like one of your family members passing and you being in the room with them," she said.
DelTurco works with rhinos as well as elephants at the Little Rock Zoo. Just seven days after losing Jewell one of the zoo's black rhinos, Navasha, died in her exhibit.
"It's the same exact feeling, just hit you all over again," added DelTurco. "By then, personally speaking, I was already numb at that point from everything that had happened seven days previously, it's just heart wrenching to go through again in such a short amount of time."
"Both were older animals that had lived great lives here at the zoo, but it still is something that's hard for the staff and it's hard for everyone," said Little Rock Zoo Spokesperson Susan Altrui. "We had two major animals that passed away one right after the other so whenever something like that happens it definitely is something that's hard on the staff, it's hard on all of us here at the zoo."
Altrui says the zoo is already working to get another elephant and rhino to replace Jewell and Navasha. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which keeps a database of animals across the country tracking genetic, medical and behavioral records, will find what it believes to be a good match for the Little Rock Zoo.
"They look at all kinds of factors when they're putting animals together, they look at social behaviors and all types of different things and they try to do what's best for the population as a whole," said Altrui. "They will likely have a recommendation for an animal at another zoo and they may contact that zoo and say 'hey, there's an individual there at that we think should come to the Little Rock Zoo, would you be willing to loan that animal to that zoo?' and they, more than likely, will say yes. Zoos are very willing to cooperate with other zoos in that regard."
Altrui does not have a concrete timeline for when the zoo might get word back on a possible candidate to replace either animal. The zoo will not pay for any new animals through the exchange process, but will need to pay the cost of transporting any new animals to Little Rock.
Altrui says both Jewell and Navasha have been buried here in Arkansas but that those burial sites are kept secret because certain parts of those animals, like elephant tusks, can bring in big money on the black market. She says a black rhino horn like Navasha's could get somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 illegally.