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'I was very emotional' | Staff reflects on moment Texas elephant let them bathe her for first time in decades

Sissy, or Gerry as she was known in Gainesville, held her trunk above water for 36 hours during the 1981 flood

GAINESVILLE, Texas — Elephants who arrive at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee carry a lot of weight, but arguably none brought a heavier burden than an Asian elephant named Sissy.

Long before retiring to the sanctuary, Sissy lived at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville.

“She was a baby,” said Gainesville resident Lucy Sutton. “She was my baby.”

Sutton was there when her dad picked up Sissy from Six Flags on the elephant’s first birthday.

“She was really the star of the zoo,” Sutton said.

For more than a decade, Gainesville was flooded with people wanting to see Sissy, until October of 1981 when the town was just flooded.

“We got 17 inches of rain in 24 hours," said local business owner Johnny Leftwich.

“The water was so high,” said Cathy Farquhar, director of the Morton Museum in Gainesville.

A creek runs beside the zoo and as floodwaters rose, Sissy was swept downstream.

Everyone in town assumed she had drowned.

But the next day, when the waters receded, Sissy was found clinging to a tree.

“Miraculously between two trees with her trunk up out of the water and that’s how she survived,” Sutton said.

“That, more or less, saved the elephant,” Leftwich said.

The zoo determined Sissy had been underwater with her trunk above the surface for 36 hours.

“Everybody was talking about, ‘they found Gerry,’” Farquhar said.

Gerry, which was her name at the time, was celebrated with T-shirts, bumper stickers and someone even wrote a book about her heroic ordeal. 

“It’s what made her famous, but it also traumatized her,” Sutton said.

Since the flood, Sissy hasn’t let anyone give her a bath, a sign she’s terrified of water.

“Safe to say that Sissy’s experience during that flood certainly had a big impact on her life and on her personality,” said Todd Montgomery, senior manager of external relations for The Elephant Sanctuary.

RELATED: 54-year-old elephant fearful of water after surviving Texas flooding allows caregivers to give her a bath for the first time

In fact, up until recently, whenever it was bath time at the sanctuary, Sissy would watch from a distance. That is, until last month when, for the first time since the flood, Sissy— now 54 years old —allowed caretakers to spray her with water.

The moment wasn’t captured on camera but the people of Gainesville, who loved this elephant dearly, didn’t need a video to see the significance.

“I was very emotional, I’ll tell you that,” Sutton said. “It makes me know that she’s OK.”

A weight has been lifted and hope has been found.

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