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This week would have marked Asian elephant Malee’s eighth birthday. She was the first elephant calf born at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden after many years of work and the completion of a new elephant habitat. Instead, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the progress being made against the virus that claimed her life in 2015 when she was only four years old.

A lethal virus called EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus) is causing the death of young elephants globally both in the wild and in human care. EEHV is carried naturally by African and Asian elephants. It can cause severe disease in elephants primarily between one and eight years of age. In its most severe form, the virus can cause a hemorrhagic or bleeding disease that can be fatal usually within days of signs of illness.

Determined to find solutions to protecting elephants from the virus, researchers, veterinarians, virologists, scientists, elephant care specialists and conservationists came together for the bi-annual North American EEHV Workshop last month in Houston. Three representatives from the OKC Zoo were on-hand to share their knowledge and learn from other research. Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo’s director of veterinary services, presented the Zoo’s program for EEHV monitoring and preparedness.

“After Malee’s untimely death, the Zoo invested in an in-house, cutting-edge EEHV monitoring program that analyzes blood and trunk secretions for any DNA evidence of the virus,” D’Agostino said. “Additionally, we conduct periodic EEHV preparedness drills and always have treatment materials like anti-viral medications pre-packaged and ready to go.”

Although 60 to 70 percent of EEHV cases are fatal, early detection is critical to survival. Malee’s sister, Achara, 4, tested positive for the virus and survived. As part of their treatment plan, veterinary staff used stem cells saved from Achara’s umbilical cord. Stem cells help boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and can repair damaged tissue.

“At the first EEHV Workshop I attended in 2010, we didn’t even know how many species and strains of the virus existed,” D’Agostino said. “Today, we have a much greater understanding of EEHV. Promising new research suggests that the virus attacks young elephants when they transition from relying on their mother’s antibodies (from nursing) to gearing up to create their own antibodies.”

The Zoo supports EEHV research by sending samples from its intergenerational Asian elephant herd to scientists studying the virus. It also serves as a backup, emergency testing lab for other Zoos in the region.

As for the future, Dr. D’Agostino is confident an EEHV vaccine is only a few years from reality and that the memory of Malee will drive the Zoo to remain at the forefront of virus treatment and early detection.

Contributing to elephant conservation! The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner. Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Regular admission is $11 for adults and $8 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free. Connect with the Zoo on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and by visiting Our Stories. Zoo fans can support the OKC Zoo by becoming Oklahoma Zoological Society members at or in-person at the Zoo! To learn more about these and other happenings, call (405) 424-3344 or visit


EDITOR’S NOTE: For photos associated with this release, click here.

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