EVANSVILLE, Ind. — It’s been 20 years since Evansville’s beloved attraction left the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden — Sept. 29, 1999. The Asian elephant, affectionately named Bunny, was a mainstay at the zoo.
After being captured in Burma, Bunny arrived in Evansville in 1954. Over the next 45 years, she grew from her 4 foot and 450-pound-frame to a hulking 7,800-pound creature and was one of Mesker Park Zoo’s biggest attractions.
She passed away at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee in 2009.
“She was an absolute sweetheart,” former Mesker zookeeper Kerry Seitz said.
Seitz said his experiences with Bunny were some of the best in his life. He recounted stories of spending time with Bunny in the zoo facility pool where he spent nearly every day with her.
Seitz, who worked at the Mesker Park during the 1970s and 80s, said Bunny brought out the best in everyone that came in contact with her. When Seitz left the zoo in the mid-1980s, it was a decision filled with regret.
“That is the worst day in my life when I quit the zoo,” Seitz said. “I miss her so much; it brings tears to my eyes that I didn’t stay. Anybody that worked with Bunny, she captured their soul.”
Bunny spent nearly 50 years at the zoo before leaving Evansville. After months of deliberation, the Parks Board unanimously voted to sent her to The Elephant Sanctuary, a resting place for retired zoo and circus elephants in Hohenwald, Tennessee, in 1999. Bunny was the facility’s fifth resident.
Changing standards in animal welfare for elephants held in captivity alone is what eventually led to Bunny’s move.
The Evansville community was split on what they wanted to do about Bunny, said Erin Gibson, a journalism instructor at the University of Southern Indiana.
Gibson, who worked as a creative services director for a local radio group at the time, said there were public disagreements in the media and comments from zookeepers and other community members who fought against sending Bunny to Tennessee.
“Every news story was about supporters and detractors who didn’t want her to leave,” Gibson said. “She became a political issue in this city, and it played out very publicly.”
For the larger Evansville community, Seitz claims Bunny’s absence affected many residents who remember growing up with Bunny’s presence as the centerpiece of Evansville. Seeing her go left a sense of emptiness in the heart of many, he said.
Zoo Executive Director Erik Beck at that time helped take care of Bunny as a zookeeper. While many were disappointed in Bunny leaving, he said, several workers at the zoo supported her move to The Elephant Sanctuary.
“There was quite a few of us that were happy she got to move down there and got 10 more years,” Beck said. “I was fortunate enough to take her down there, and she took right to the other elephants.”
At the sanctuary, Bunny interacted with other elephants more than she had in her entire life. After a decade at the facility, she passed away in 2009 in the facility’s field after falling ill.
In May 2018, Gibson released a film called “Two Elephants” documenting much of Bunny’s story. It also focused on the story of Kay the elephant, who Bunny replaced at the zoo.