The Oklahoma City Zoo has confirmed that a herpes virus caused the death of a young female elephant. But the virus was not the same strain that killed a calf in Seattle several years ago.
The Oklahoma City Zoo has confirmed that a herpes virus caused the death of a young female elephant earlier this month. But the virus was not the same strain that killed a calf in Seattle several years ago.
That means it’s unlikely 3-year-old Malee was infected by Chai or Bamboo, two female elephants from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo that were recently relocated to the Oklahoma Zoo.
“The Seattle elephants did not bring this virus to us,” said zoo veterinarian Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino. “This particular strain was already here.”
Malee was infected with EEHV-1A, the same form of the virus that her mother and aunt were both exposed to earlier in their lives. (The initials stand for elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus.) EEHV-1A is the most common, deadly form of the virus, D’Agostino said.
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Hansa, the 6-year-old female who died at Woodland Park Zoo in 2007, was infected with EEHV-3.
Most elephants are believed to carry multiple strains of herpes viruses. No one knows why some animals get sick and other don’t, D’Agostino said.
But it’s clear that the infections are most devastating to young elephants, accounting for about 60 percent of deaths in captive Asian calves.
The virus can kill quickly from massive hemorrhaging. Keepers first noticed Malee behaving sluggishly one afternoon. By 3 a.m. the next day, she was dead.
Alyne Fortgang, of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants — which advocated for sending Chai and Bamboo to a sanctuary — said it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the Seattle elephants played a role in Malee’s death.
Chai was exposed to EEHV-1A early in her life, and is likely a carrier.
“Malee could have gotten it from Chai just as easily as she could have gotten it from (her mother and aunt),” Fortgang said.
Genetic sequencing of the virus is under way, and may provide more answers, D’Agostino said.
About 80 percent of young elephants infected with herpes die, but improved diagnosis and anti-viral treatment has succeeded in saving several animals in recent years.
With another young elephant in its herd — 10-month-old Achara — the Oklahoma Zoo is considering a testing system that will yield quicker results, perhaps allowing quicker treatment in the future.
“If it’s even 12 hours earlier, that could make a difference,” D’Agostino said.