By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Taj, the oldest elephant in North America, has died at age 71 at a California theme park, after years of performing for crowds and painting on canvas.
Taj far surpassed the 45-year average life expectancy for Asian elephants, Nancy Chan, a spokeswoman for Six Flags Discovery Kingdom -- where the animal lived in the Northern California city of Vallejo -- said on Tuesday.
"So many people have been touched by her, millions of people have met her over the years," Chan told Reuters.
"Here at the park, everyone who's ever worked with her has said she is their favorite," she said.
The elephant died on Monday, after park staff discovered that her breathing was labored, Chan said. They managed to lay the animal down on the ground, and administer medication to ease its pain, she said.
Taj was patient and gentle with trainers and other elephants in the enclosure, and seemed to enjoy performing for the public, the park said.
The animal was known for putting forward a leg, letting out a rumble and waiting for a rub down.
The park said that in the late 1990s, Taj learned to paint with a brush on canvas.
Linda Cendes, a spokeswoman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, said that until the animal's death, Taj was the oldest elephant in North America.
Little is known about Taj's early life, but the elephant performed for Circus Vargas from 1970 to 1976, working with trainer Rex Williams.
In 1976, Taj was given to a group of Hari Krishnas, who used the animal as a symbolic part of religious ceremonies.
But they had trouble handling the elephant and she was sent to Southern California's Moorpark College, where she was used in an exotic animal training program before her 1978 transfer to Marine World, the original name for Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the park said.
Last year, for Taj's 70th birthday, park staff held a birthday party, where the animal was given a bread-based, multitiered cake topped with fruits and vegetables.
Taj most recently lived with two Asian elephants, 46 year-old Liz and 30 year-old Bertie Mae, and two African elephants, 33 year-old Tava and 29 year-old Valerie.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Jerry Norton)