Tribute to Shirley and Solomon James Unveiled

The Louisiana Purchase Zoological Society and the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo hosted its Inaugural “Zuau” on Saturday, June 11, which included unveiling the organization’s tribute to Asian elephant Shirley, and her caretaker of over 20 years, Solomon James.

In March of 2022, The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee was saddened to hear of the passing of Monroe resident and longtime friend, Solomon James. Solomon was Shirley's former caretaker at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana, where she was the sole elephant resident for 22 years. As Shirley aged, zoo staff decided she needed more space and the companionship of other elephants. She was transported to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1999, accompanied by Solomon. He returned to Monroe, where he still worked night security at the zoo up until his passing.

Solomon James touched so many hearts around the world in the video of Shirley's arrival at The Sanctuary, documented by Argo Films in The Urban Elephant, and again during his visit to reconnect with Shirley on her 70th Birthday.

Shirley passed away peacefully in 2021 at age 72. She defied all odds as one of the oldest elephants in captivity and lived well beyond the life expectancy for a captive Asian elephant. Shirley was The Sanctuary's oldest elephant and held the record for the second oldest elephant in North America.

Shortly After Shirley's passing, Mr. P’s Tees — a t-shirt company based in Monroe, LA — raised over $24,700 through the sale of more than 2,000 T-shirts honoring Shirley's memory. Mr. P's Tees donated the proceeds of the commemorative T-shirt to both The Elephant Sanctuary and the Louisiana Purchase Zoological Society, who put part of the generous donation towards the Solomon and Shirley tribute.

The open-aired, life-sized statue of Shirley symbolically features Solomon via his favorite hat — a hat from The Elephant Sanctuary, which Shirley is depicted holding in her trunk. The structure was created by artist Brooke Foy and constructed completely out of metal pipe. “It is our hope that when a viewer looks at this sculpture, they will see a big, beautiful elephant that is holding the hat of a beloved person,” said Foy. “Hopefully the viewer can see that it symbolizes the relationship the two had.”

Solomon's family unveils memorial

Solomon’s family was invited to do the honors of unveiling the structure to the public. During the unveiling, Maggie Generoso, President of the Louisiana Purchase Zoological Society, read an excerpt from the late Solomon James’s short story “Unchained,” in which he wrote about Shirley,“As time goes on, many things happened. There were rainy days, also sunny days. But there was someone there to cheer me up; who brought me joy and made me happy; who was sunshine on my rainy day. That was Shirley.” 

Zoo guests were invited to bring their bathing suits and encouraged to participate in many luau-type activities during this year’s Zuau, including dance contests, water slides, and hidden prizes. The Sanctuary would like to thank the Louisiana Purchase Zoological Society and Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo for honoring Shirley and Solomon in this heartfelt and timeless way. They are truly loved all the way from Hohenwald to Monroe and beyond!

Photos courtesy of Amy Magee

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