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Denver Zoo: Mimi the elephant, her health failing, enters hospice care

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Mimi the elephant is in the twilight of her elephant life. Zookeepers' best guess is that she's 53 years old, which easily makes her the oldest Asian elephant at the Denver Zoo and means she's surpassed the average elephant life span of about 44 years old. As such, Mimi has normal old-elephant problems: sore joints, fatigue, loss of appetite. Lately, her health has declined to a point where the zoo has decided to put her in so-called elephant hospice care.

For Mimi, that means she's free to roam about the zoo's new expansive Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit as she wishes (within reason) and eat as many watermelons and bagels as her heart desires (within reason). Mimi has a reputation for being an, ahem, big eater, and as Dale Leeds, the zoo's large-mammal curator, puts it, "she tends to like foods that are perhaps not in her best interest." Her favorites are the foods the keepers would give her as treats, such as sweet fruits and bread. (Elephants tend to favor carbohydrates, Leeds says, though he's not sure who first discovered that they like bagels. "Probably somebody that was a circus worker in the mid-1800s," he guesses.)

"Now, because we know we're getting toward the end of (her) life, she gets to eat pretty much whatever she wants," Leeds says -- and it's a perk Mimi seems to be enjoying.

Mimi came to the zoo on September 17, 1961, donated by philanthropist Helen Bonfils, who was then secretary-treasurer of the Denver Post. Mimi was named after the protagonist in the musical Sail Away, which Bonfils co-produced.

Mimi doesn't have a specific diagnosis beyond old age. "A month ago, she started to have some pretty significant struggles," Leeds says. "But then in the last two weeks, she's been better, but not as good as she was two years ago."

The keepers and veterinarians are still caring for her, including with a new experimental laser treatment to ease the pain in her joints. But they're not planning any major diagnostic or invasive interventions. "We've pretty much made the decision that at her age, we don't want to do heroic things," Leeds says. "We feel like if we were doing that, we would be doing it more for us to feel good, rather than her."

Leeds says he views Mimi's declining health as natural. While it may be sad, he says, "it's not fresh, surprising or new. I think that can make it harder on people who are not as close to the situation." Part of being a zookeeper is dealing with the stages of life and death, he says. Nearly every animal who dies at the Denver Zoo is given an animal autopsy, called a necropsy. "It's our responsibility to do that so we can learn and improve for the future," Leeds explains. Mimi will likely be no exception, though her size will make it a more significant undertaking.

Final arrangements for Mimi haven't been made yet; Leeds says the zoo staff doesn't feel the situation is imminent enough to draw up a specific plan. (Most animals are cremated.) After all, Mimi is still here, doing many of the same elephant things she's always done.

"It's hard to tell funny Mimi stories without sounding like I'm picking on her," Leeds says. "But to have a 10,000-pound animal that is afraid, basically, of birds is a funny story." Mimi squeaks when she gets startled by them, he says. Mimi is also "not the best worker in the world," Leeds admits. "Mimi is an elephant that would tend to take the easy path in life." Instead, he says, she's a "schmooze artist" who loves being rubbed. "She likes coming up and putting her eye right at your eye level," Leeds says.

Historically, Mimi didn't like change, but she adapted well to the new exhibit. (For more on Toyota Elephant Passage, read our 2009 feature, "Trunk Show.") "I thought she'd struggle initially with some of the changes," Leeds says, "but she was a champ."

Here's to hoping the champ goes several more rounds.

Continue reading for more photos of Mimi.

More from our News archive: "Wild asses at the Denver Zoo -- the four-legged Somali kind!"

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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