REST IN PEACE, LITTLE MAC
After an emotional two weeks — heightened over the past 72 hours — officials with the Santa Barbara Zoo made the heart-wrenching decision to humanely euthanize beloved Asian elephant Little Mac on Wednesday night.
Little Mac was 48 years old, spending 47 years of her life at the zoo and enriching the lives of millions of visitors, as well as those of the zoo staff.
“Little Mac had been here longer than pretty much any staff member, most of them weren’t even born yet,” Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care and health, told the News-Press.
“This is very tough on all of the keepers who took care of Little Mac. She is a member of our family. We held out hope that this wouldn’t be the outcome, but we had to do the right thing for Little Mac. We are hurting, but she isn’t anymore.”
Little Mac was surrounded by her longtime keepers and additional zoo staff that have cared for her over the years.
Her body has been removed from the elephant exhibit by crane and taken to the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino, where a necropsy was started on Thursday, with results expected to take several weeks.
On Tuesday, the zoo announced publicly that they had put Little Mac into hospice care due to her declining medical condition, pointing to gastrointestinal issues the elephant had been dealing with since June. In addition, Little Mac dealt with arthritis in her legs and issues with her teeth, both of which are common with geriatric Asian elements.
“We had exhausted the medical options available that would allow her to have a good quality of life. It was time to let her go,” Dr. Barnes said.
And as the zoo said goodbye to Little Mac, it also marked the end of the elephant program in Santa Barbara. After the zoo’s other Asian elephant, Sujatha, passed away in October 2018, Little Mac was the final elephant under local care, allowed to stay in Santa Barbara despite new Association of Zoos and Aquariums rules that require more larger exhibit space and breeding bulls.
Dr. Barnes explained that when Little Mac lost her longtime companion last fall, the zoo instituted a series of testing to make sure that keeping Little Mac in Santa Barbara was the right thing to do. Asian elephants are social animals and do well in herds, but Santa Barbara was the only home that Little Mac had ever known since arriving from India in 1972.
Little Mac’s keepers instituted a welfare study into her well-being, first to get a better understanding of her medical status, followed by a “challenge” phase, where she would be tested to see how she adapted to change.
She showed positive signs throughout the first phase, according to Dr. Barnes.
“Through the baseline data, when we analyzed that data, we saw an elephant that showed really good behavioral diversity,” Dr. Barnes explained. “We looked at things like how she engaged with her environment, her enrichment, how does she use the space she has access to, how does she engage with her keepers, how does she engage with the public. She was indicating all of the behaviors an elephant to do that is under human care.”
After passing the first test, her keepers changed up the environment, an attempt to see if Little Mac would be open to a new facility, or if change agitated her well-being.
“We wanted to see how she would cope with these changes, because if there were indications from her behavior that she wasn’t coping, then moving her wasn’t going to be in her best interest, it would be too traumatic for her,” Dr. Barnes said.
With the challenge phase beginning in May, Little Mac actually showed an increased level of engagement, showing that she had “a really rich life, even though she was on her own,” Dr. Barnes said.
But in June, Little Mac’s health condition deteriorated quickly, dealing with colic in addition to the gastrointestinal issues — all ultimately leading to the decision to keep her in Santa Barbara.
Little Mac was a Santa Barbaran from the beginning, being named by Herb Peterson, an owner of several Santa Barbara McDonald’s restaurants, after he paid for her flight from India. McDonald’s was touting its new product, the “Big Mac,” at the time, and Little Mac came to Santa Barbara as a tiny 4-foot-tall pachyderm.
When found orphaned in India, Little Mac was also dealing with severe malnutrition, something that stayed with her for the rest of her life, leading to dental issues that eventually saw her lose all of her upper teeth. All of her food had to be cut up over the past few years.
“She was very close with her keepers, and they were very close to her,” Dr. Barnes said. “Losing any animal is difficult, but losing Mac is definitely hitting us even harder. She touched so many lives.”
While no public memorial has yet to be decided upon, Dr. Barnes did encourage anyone looking to honor Little Mac’s memory to visit the zoo’s website to learn more about ways to make donations in her name.