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

Sissy nearly drowned in record flooding in Gainesville in 1981. She survived being submerged underwater with only her trunk above water allowing her to breathe.
Credit: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

GAINESVILLE, Texas — An elephant that nearly drowned in a Texas flood more than 40 years ago recently allowed her caregivers to give her a bath despite her previous signs of fear of water.

Sissy, an elephant born in 1968, nearly drowned in record flooding in Gainesville, Texas in 1981. Known as Gerry II at the time, she survived being submerged underwater with only her trunk above water allowing her to breathe. More than 40 of the zoo's animals died the night of that flood.

Last week, Sissy allowed her caregivers with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee to give her a bath, which was the first bath on record since she arrived at the sanctuary in 2000.

On Sissy's bio page on the sanctuary's website, it said Sissy was initially captured in Thailand as a calf before appearing in the United States on exhibit at Six Flags Over Texas in 1969.

That same year, the amusement park sold Sissy to the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville to replace the zoo’s most recent elephant, Gerry, that died. This is when Sissy was known as "Gerry II" for a period of time.

Sissy spent the next three decades at this Texas zoo.

The Gainesville zoo eventually moved Sissy to a Houston Zoo and later to an El Paso Zoo. Sissy’s harsh treatment at the hands of her keepers was videotaped and leaked to the local press, according to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The decision was eventually made for Sissy to be retired to The Elephant Sanctuary.

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Sissy arrived in Tennessee in January 2000. The sanctuary said Sissy was reserved and cautious at first. However, Sissy soon began to go farther out into the habitat and socialize with the other elephants, the sanctuary said. After several weeks, employees saw Sissy lying down in the habitat, which they said is "incredible news" because Sissy’s previous keepers had not seen her lying down on her own in years.

After a year of treatment for tuberculosis and another year of follow-up, the sanctuary’s vet and husbandry teams made the decision that Sissy would return to her long-time companions and social group in the sanctuary's Asia Habitat, which provides distance learning opportunities to schools and groups around the world. She returned in October 2019.

In contrast to the elephant the sanctuary said was reported to show signs of anxiety and fear when around water because of her experience with the Gainesville flood, the sanctuary's care staff said it frequently saw Sissy splashing and swimming in the ponds.

Sissy does not have full use and range of motion of her trunk, according to the sanctuary. Even with a partially paralyzed trunk, Sissy can feed and water herself. She uses the end of her trunk to throw a hose up to her mouth and to crimp the hose to stop water flow if she is not ready to drink.

Sissy has a unique way of communicating by flipping the end of her trunk back and forth to make a “popping” sound, the sanctuary said. These “pops” are commonly heard when she is socializing or when there is a new device to interact with.

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