Ode to Frieda: “Problem” elephant survives lifetime at the circus, dies surrounded by family

That Frieda lived to 49-years-old is pretty remarkable.

The Asian elephant had spent her life performing in circus tents, where she was eventually deemed a “problem” elephant by her handlers. In rough shape, she landed in 2006 at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where she was euthanized this week to end her suffering from several incurable, degenerative diseases.

“She will be missed very much,” Janice Zeitlin, chief executive officer of the sanctuary, said in a statement. “…Staff and supporters are proud to have given Frieda the opportunity to explore The Elephant Sanctuary’s grassy meadows, wooded hillsides and ponds for nine years.”

Frieda was born wild in 1966. She was captured and separated from her family to act as a circus performer. Early records are missing, the sanctuary said, but Frieda spent most of her life with the Clyde-Beatty Cole Brothers Circus.

In 1995, as she being walked across a parking lot, she was chased by another elephant and right through a department store window causing $20,000 in damage. Other “destructive incidents” followed, which gave rise to Frieda’s reputation as a “problem.” She wound up with an Illinois company that trained and leased elephants to circuses, but once there, she was isolated from other resident elephants. That company was later prosecuted on animal welfare offences. Frieda was sent to the sanctuary in Tennessee, but she didn’t look good.

The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

She was severely underweight. She had arthritis and osteomyelitis; chronic foot and joint diseases. She was also exposed to tuberculosis. But she she bounced back, gobbling up food and packing on weight. Within six months, Frieda gained more than 1,000 pounds.

She also bonded with other elephants. Her longtime companions at the sanctuary were elephants Billie, who was rescued from the same circus company, and Liz. Together, they were known as “the threesome.”

The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee/Liz, Billie & Frieda, Jan. 2014
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee/Liz, Billie & Frieda, Jan. 2014

She was also beloved by her herd mates Minnie, Ronnie and Debbie.

But in the last few weeks, Frieda started was slowing down. Health problems cut into her physical activity. The pain got worse. She would spend hours quietly eating next to Liz. Then her appetite began to wane. The normally social elephant became less interested in being around other elephants.

“Arthritis and osteomyelitis in the feet and legs are among the leading reasons for mortality in captive elephants,” Dr. Steven Scott, the sanctuary’s director of veterinary care, said in a statement. “These incurable diseases—mostly caused by an elephant’s inability to lead a natural life in captivity—result in degeneration of the bones and the joints that support them.”

She was euthanized on Monday. Billie and Liz were nearby. The sanctuary described their emotional goodbyes.

“Liz entered the barn first and spent a few minutes touching Frieda’s body. Billie then entered; she and Liz rumbled and squeaked toward each other. Liz stood over Frieda’s body, using her belly and feet to touch her lost friend, while Billie gently glided her trunk over Frieda’s face, trunk and legs.”

Tributes have been pouring in. More than 750 people have posted their memories of Frieda online. Many have noted her death in reference this month’s unprecedented announcement by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to eliminate elephant acts from their performances by 2018. The company’s 13 elephants still performing will move to a sanctuary within three years. (Not soon enough many animal welfare activists have complained.)

We were saddened to learn that Frieda the 49 year-old former circus elephant was euthanized at the Elephant Sanctuary this week. After many years of chains and bullhooks, Frieda finally found sanctuary and respect in Tennessee. There will never be a good reason why animals have to endure a life of abuse for a novelty show. Recent events, hopefully, will soon bring an end to this archaic practice.
Ed Stewart, Performing Animal Welfare Society, San Andreas, Ca

The sanctuary has also posted a video tribute to Frieda.

Photos The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

About the author

Recovering newspaper reporter.


  1. I pray all elephants will know the kindness, love and freedom Frieda knew in her last nine years. No elephant should be kept in captivity and abused for our entertainment. RIP Frieda. At least you escaped the awful abuse and enjoyed the rest of your life doing what elephants are meant to do .. roam free with their families.

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