Joe the African elephant, who was 22 and the lone bull in the Baltimore Zoo's four-animal herd, died unexpectedly yesterday afternoon while under treatment for recurring colic.
An inspiring symbol to zoo employees and visitors of the world's threatened population of giant land mammals, Joe had been captured in Zimbabwe and brought to the United States by about the age of 2, according to zoo Director Brian A. Rutledge.
Joe lived most of his life in Florida, at the Jacksonville Zoo, before being acquired by the Baltimore Zoo in October 1985 for its then-new elephant habitat -- a centerpiece for an African Plains section that has become one of the park's main attractions.
Since bull elephants do not live with the cows except at breeding time, Joe was housed and exhibited separately from the adjacent pen of the three females -- Vaal, Dolly and Anna.
Zoo officials were still determining how and when he would be used in a species survival reproduction program under development by cooperating zoological facilities across the country.
The animal's death about 2:30 p.m. stunned keepers and other zoo employees. The average life span for elephants is comparable to that of humans.
"We've been treating him for an apparent colic for about two weeks," Mr. Rutledge said, adding that the condition had been chronic with Joe.
"He looked weak and ill this morning, but certainly not on the verge of death."
Mr. Rutledge said he rushed to the elephant barn about 2:20 p.m., when he was notified that Joe had collapsed.
"I was there within four or five minutes, and within six or seven minutes he was dead," Mr. Rutledge said.
"The crew did absolutely everything they could do to save him. They will continue to try to help us figure out what caused his death."
Johns Hopkins University specialists in comparative anatomy and pathology were called to the zoo late in the day to work with the veterinary staff on the necropsy -- a detailed examination of the body that includes taking tissue samples for later analysis.
The remains will be buried in an animal cemetery on the zoo grounds in Druid Hill Park, Mr. Rutledge said.
"He was a pretty reasonable bull," Mr. Rutledge said. "A lot of elephants become more and more difficult as they get older. Joe has certainly done that, but Joe was very reasonable. He was playing the role of a young male elephant and was not particularly subservient to anyone. We were very fond of him.
"He was a great animal -- an animal that inspired all of us to make greater efforts to educate the public as to the magnificence and importance of saving this species."