A Promise to Elephants

Last October, I experienced one of the worst days of my life. Thinking about the loss of our elephant calf, Malee, still gets me emotional. Losing her was similar to losing a family member. Nearly one year later, I’m proud to share the Oklahoma City Zoo is making an unprecedented commitment to the health of our elephants. Our zoo will be the first in the country with the capability to conduct critical veterinary testing on site for a virus that affects elephants. This will provide incredible benefits to the way we monitor the health of our herd, and it underscores our dedication to providing our animals with excellent care and a great quality of life.

Next week, I will submit an order to bring a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine to the zoo. The machine is how we test the elephants for elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) - a virus we suspect exists in some degree in all elephants, both wild and in human care. For adults, the virus is typically latent, but young calves can become susceptible as they begin weaning. One particularly virulent strain of this virus was responsible for Malee’s death last October. While clinically healthy, recently Achara, our youngest elephant, tested positive for EEHV in a very small quantity. Achara is still nursing and receiving antibodies from mom’s milk, and while we believe exposure to the virus while nursing may be critical to Achara developing her own antibodies, having testing capabilities at the Zoo will give us the opportunity to maintain our stringent monitoring processes and make changes to our care in real-time as she responds to the virus.

There are currently only a couple laboratories in the country that conduct EEHV testing. The one most zoos use is located in Washington, DC. Without a testing lab on site, our samples must be sent by overnight courier to the lab. It can take anywhere between 36-48 hours from collecting the samples to getting a result. During that window of time, we have to make medical decisions without critical pieces of information. With the PCR testing equipment here at the Zoo, what currently takes days to get results will soon only take a few hours. That allows us to be more specific in our treatment of the elephants, ensuring we are providing medication when they need it and not medicating them unnecessarily while we wait for results. What’s more, we’ll be able to test our entire herd of elephants more frequently, and we’ll have access to the machine 24/7, 365 days a year – including late nights, weekends, holidays and when weather conditions make sample shipment difficult. The elephants are always our highest priority and we will always be here to support them day or night.

For me, this is an incredibly exciting moment that I’ve been working toward since the day we lost Malee. I knew that day that we needed answers, and that involved finding the resources to bring testing in house. Through generous donations we have been able to purchase this vital medical equipment. I am beyond grateful for this show of support.

This technology is a promise to our elephants that we will continue to put their health and quality of life first. It’s a promise to all elephants in zoos and in the wild that we will continue to learn about this disease and work toward fighting disease worldwide. Oklahoma City Zoo already has one of the largest habitats for elephants in the country, and now we will have the most advanced veterinary lab for managing elephant health. I’m proud of our zoo’s vision to become a national leader in combating EEHV in elephants both in our zoos and in the wild. I hope that our zoo can serve as an example to other zoos that this work can be done in-house, and that they can do it too.

The lab will be operational within the next few months, and we’ll continue to share stories and keep the community updated on our elephant health and welfare efforts.

Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, DVM, DACZM is Director of Veterinary Services with Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. Dr. D’Agostino earned her doctorate from Michigan State University and joined the OKC Zoo in 2003 for her residency work during post-graduate training and was hired as director of veterinary services in 2008. Dr. D’Agostino is also a diplomat in the American College of Zoological Medicine.


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