Panya, a beloved Asian elephant who awed countless visitors during her 39-year residence at the Audubon Zoo, died Thursday after her health declined sharply due to kidney disease in recent days.

Zoo officials said they made the difficult decision to euthanize the 55-year-old elephant after it became clear her condition was "irreversible and her quality of life was being impacted."

Joe Forys, the zoo’s curator of large mammals who worked with Panya for 19 years, described her as a one-of-a-kind elephant who was big on first impressions, was determined to get what she wanted and demanded that those around her earn her trust.

“Panya was an amazing animal — brilliant and incredibly strong-spirited,” Forys said in an email to Audubon Zoo members. “We all loved her, and we will miss her deeply.”

The news of Panya's death traveled quickly, especially among parents like Sherri Gregoire, who remembered Panya from her childhood trips to the zoo and made a point to visit the elephant with her two children.

“Every time I go to the zoo I tell my husband and kids, ‘When I was younger we used to ride the elephants,’” said Gregoire, 41. “I remember rubbing their prickly hair.”

Panya had lots of young fans, too.

NO.Elephant.011714

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Panya, one of two female Asian elephants at Audubon Zoo, celebrated her 50th birthday on Thursday, January 16, 2014. Zoo staffers presented Panya with a cake that she quickly devoured.

Among them was 8-year-old Raina King, who said she had just visited “her friend” about two weeks ago. “I’m so sad. She was my favorite,” Raina said. “I’m gonna miss her.”

Panya was one of the longest-living animals at the Audubon Zoo, and for years was one of two female pachyderms there. She and her longtime companion, 46-year-old Jean, had been joined by 36-year-old Surapa and 37-year-old Jothi, who arrived from the Buffalo Zoo in November.

Zoo handlers were still in the process of introducing the four animals to one another when Panya died, officials said, so all four had not yet been on display in the new elephant habitat at the same time.

Since elephants tend to have “strong social structures,” zoo officials will continue the process of integrating Jean, Surapa and Jothi into a single herd, according to Joel Hamilton, the zoo’s vice president and general curator.

Can't see video below? Click here.

Panya first came to Audubon Zoo with Jean in 1980 from a company that offered elephant rides as part of zoo displays, Hamilton said. The Audubon Nature Institute adopted her in 1983.

During her time there, she saw many changes at the century-old zoo.

Most recently, the elephant enclosure where Panya lived got a $10 million makeover. It is part of the new Asian Domain area that took three years to build.

The new area resulted in her enjoying eight times the space of her old habitat. It features a more spacious barn, two wading pools and an enrichment log, which allowed her to problem-solve and use her roughly 40,000 trunk muscles to forage for food.

While sad, zoo officials said that Panya’s death wasn’t wholly unexpected, as elephants often start to decline and develop kidney problems once they reach a certain age.

According to the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Asian elephants typically live into their 50s, with the oldest ever recorded living to 86.

Hamilton said zoo handlers first noticed that Panya was acting “off” about five weeks ago, so they started monitoring her and analyzing her blood.

Over the weekend, she took a turn for the worse, and another blood test showed her kidney values had declined dramatically, he said.

In the final stages of her illness, Panya received hospice care while the staff made every effort to maintain her comfort, officials added.

Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman said Panya had become an important ambassador of her species, as zoo officials see it as their mission to education millions about the plight of elephants living in the wild.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the population of Asian elephants is estimated to have declined by 50 percent or more over the last 75 years, a statistic that has kept them firmly on the endangered species list.

Within three generations, Asian elephants could disappear from the wild if action is not taken.

Audubon is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which invested $10.5 million toward elephant conservation between 2012 and 2016. Asian elephants are one of the signature species of the AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction program.

The zoo also educates visitors about 96 Elephants, a program which advocates for African elephants and educates the public about the dangers they face in the wild.

“Panya was such an iconic member of the New Orleans community — she inspired a lifelong passion for wildlife and conservation in generations of zoo visitors,” Forman said. “She leaves behind an incredible legacy that will be felt far beyond her lifetime.”


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.