For several hours Monday, Jothi and Surapa hovered over a lifeless Buki in the Buffalo Zoo's Elephant House.
The younger Asian elephants nudged the matriarch's head and brushed her body with their trunks, presumably in the hope that their constant companion of more than two decades might awaken and rise up from the padded floor.
But experience may have told these animals, which are known for their long memories, that Buki, 52, was irredeemably gone, Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes speculated.
When the older elephant's health began to decline about two months ago, the other two "seemed to recognize that she was sick," Fernandes said.
Unlike 1992, when they grieved the passing of Lulu, then the senior member of the elephant family, with trumpeting and agitated movement, Surapa and Jothi did not appear as distressed this time, she said.
If anything, the death of perhaps the most popular member of the entire zoo collection was harder on the people who worked with her day in and day out -- including Fernandes, whose eyes welled up as she talked about Buki nine hours after the aged pachyderm died at 5:40 a.m.
"She had such a sweet disposition. She was a really wonderful animal," recalled Fernandes, who grew attached to the gentle giant after arriving in 2000 to guide the zoo's $58 million reconstruction program.
That sweet nature gave visitors many opportunities to observe Buki at close quarters, during bathing, "elephant art," football score-picking and other public events.
"She was a real symbol of the zoo," Fernandes said.
Two weeks ago, Buki, who had been diagnosed with kidney problems, stopped eating her staple foods -- hay and sugar cane -- leading keepers to suspect that the end might be near.
They and the veterinary staff "worked very hard" to save the animal, who lost several hundred pounds from her usual weight of about 8,500 pounds, Fernandes said.
After consulting with elephant experts in the United States and Canada, the veterinary staff administered medication to improve her digestion, alleviate discomfort and ward off infections, and gave her intravenous and oral fluids to keep her hydrated.
All the while, Buki continued to socialize with Jothi and Surapa and allowed keepers and veterinary staff to treat her. Hundreds of well-wishers sent cards, which keepers read to her each morning.
But Buki, who was born in Thailand and retired to the zoo in 1984 after touring with American circuses for 25 years, had reached the upper limits of an elephant's life expectancy.
Her time was up.
A necropsy will be performed, but the results will not be known for several weeks, Fernandes said. Buki's remains will be donated to the paleontology department of East Tennessee State University, which maintains an elephant bone and tissue collection.
The zoo, which was closed Monday because of Buki's death and the weather, will place a book of remembrance at the Elephant House for visitors.
Fernandes thanked the many fans who sent Buki get-well cards.
"I hope children aren't going to be disappointed to find out that she passed away anyway," she said.