Four-year-old Malee died suddenly at the Oklahoma City Zoo. She was being treated for a virus similar to the one that killed a young elephant at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in 2007.

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A 4-year-old elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo, where Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo moved its two female elephants this spring, died suddenly Thursday.

Zoo officials say they will perform a necropsy to determine what killed Malee, the first elephant born at the zoo. Staff had treated her for a type of herpes infection particularly deadly to young elephants.

A 6-year-old elephant called Hansa died at the Seattle zoo in 2007 from a related type of herpes infection. Animal-welfare activists who opposed the transfer of Seattle’s two adult females — Chai and Bamboo — to Oklahoma warned they might pass the virus to Malee and her 9-month-old sister, Achara.

Glamour Beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity

Click here or on the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ 2012 investigation into elephant deaths in U.S. zoos.  

Seattle’s elephants

Elephants from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo were moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015 after a bruising political and court fight. Activists had wanted the elephants transferred to a sanctuary in California.  

But zoo officials dismissed the risk, noting that most elephants carry one or more types of herpes viruses.

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Malee and Achara’s mother, Asha, and their aunt, Chandra, were also both exposed to the herpes virus at the Missouri zoo where they were born. A statement from the Oklahoma City Zoo’s veterinarian said the virus has been intermittently detected in both Asha and Chandra during routine testing.

On its website, the Oklahoma City Zoo said keepers noticed Malee moving more slowly than normal Wednesday. They later noticed a discoloration in her mouth, and started treatment for elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV). A second treatment was administered around 1 a.m. Thursday, but the elephant declined rapidly and died about three hours later.

EEHV is known to kill rapidly by causing massive internal hemorrhaging.

Regardless of the cause, Malee’s death is sure to fuel the ongoing debate over captive breeding of elephants. A 2012 Seattle Times investigation found that infant mortality among zoo elephants is 40 percent, nearly three times the rate in wild-elephant populations.

The investigation also found that for every elephant born in a zoo, an average of two elephants die.

Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of the Seattle-based Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, called for an immediate halt to breeding at the Oklahoma City Zoo, which has plans to continue increasing its herd.

“All breeding must stop at zoos which have had elephants who have had, or been exposed to, EEHV,” Fortgang wrote in an email. “Anything less is unethical.”

A spokeswoman for Woodland Park Zoo said it’s too early to comment on the specifics of Malee’s death.

“Our hearts and thoughts go out to our family at Oklahoma City Zoo and their herd,” Gigi Allianic wrote in an email. “We are confident that Chai and Bamboo continue to do well with their new herd.”

The statement from the Oklahoma City Zoo said none of the other elephants there appears to be ill.