Lily, Oregon Zoo’s Youngest Elephant, Dies Suddenly from a Virus

The day before her sixth birthday, Lily, the youngest elephant in captivity at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, suddenly became very ill.

The morning before that, a blood sample from Lily tested positive for low levels of the endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) virus, a disease that progresses very quickly and can be fatal to elephant calves. She showed no symptoms at the time. That changed the next day, when she became lethargic and refused to eat.

Zoo staff gave Lily fluids, antiviral medications and a transfusion, to no avail. Surrounded by her mother, Rose-Tu, her elephant “aunties” Chendra and Shine, and zoo employees, Lily died that night.

Zoo Director Don Moore called Lily “the darling of the zoo” in the press release announcing her death. He said the devastated staff “did everything they could and fought to save her until the very end. Everyone is in mourning here. It is just heartbreaking.”

It is extremely heartbreaking—even more so since Lily never knew freedom during her too-short lifetime. In December 2012, she was born at the Oregon Zoo as part of its controversial elephant breeding program.

The Worst Zoo for Elephants in the World

The Oregon Zoo has the appalling distinction of ranking No. 1 on Care2′s list of the worst elephant experiences in the world.

One reason is because it sells the calves from its breeding program to entertainment companies like Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT), which, along with the zoo, has previously used cruel bullhooks—poles with sharp hooks on one end—to beat elephants into submission. Rose-Tu, Lily’s mother, suffered over 176 lacerations and puncture wounds—including ones in her anus—during a bullhook beating at the zoo in 2000, when she was Lily’s age.

In fact, after Lily was born, HTWT initially owned her, not the Oregon Zoo. In 2005, the zoo made a deal with HTWT to sell them Rose-Tu’s second, fourth and sixth calves. Two months after Lily’s birth, the Oregon Zoo Foundation paid HTWT $400,000 to assume legal ownership of the calf and another elephant, Tusko.

“Lily’s living arrangements were never in question,” Kim Smith, the zoo director at the time, said in a February 2013 press release. “But this makes it official: Lily will live her life with her family herd, the way elephants should.”

Yes, elephants should live with their herds—but with elephants they’re actually related to, and not inside the confines of a zoo. Elephants in captivity are susceptible to life-threatening health problems, like deadly foot diseases—and endotheliotropic herpesvirus. Lily is the fourth elephant to die at the Oregon Zoo in just the past three years.

What is EEHV?

Endotheliotropic herpesvirus is similar to the herpesvirus in humans. Its symptoms can simply be small bumps on the skin, but as in Lily’s sad case, it can also cause severe internal hemorrhaging. The problem is that veterinarians can only detect EEHV once it’s in the bloodstream, and by then it’s usually too late to save the elephant’s life.

The virus wasn’t identified until 1999, four years after Kumari, a 16-month-old calf born at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., succumbed to what was then called a mysterious illness. Her death inspired the zoo to launch the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory. Working with Johns Hopkins University, the laboratory researches new ways to test for and vaccinate against various strains of elephant herpes to prevent future deaths.

EEHV kills about one out of five Asian elephant calves in captivity, Oregon Zoo veterinarian Kelly Flaminio told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). She said the number is probably the same for calves in the wild.

“Scientists believe most, if not all, Asian elephants in the world carry some form of EEHV — an ancient virus that has evolved along with elephants for millions of years,” the zoo stated in a press release.

But according to a 1991 New York Times article, EEHV in zoo elephants “may be a direct result of human meddling.” The article says it may have been spread to young Asian elephants in zoos by African elephants, “a separate species with which they are often housed in captivity but never encounter in the wild.”

EEHV only causes minor problems in African elephants, the New York Times reported, but it can be deadly for Asian elephants. Conversely, Asian elephants carry a virus that isn’t harmful to them but can kill African elephants.

Elephants that test positive for EEHV receive anti-herpes medications for humans, because there’s been no funding to develop these drugs for elephants, OPB reports. Meanwhile, the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory is working on a vaccine to prevent EEHV. It’s challenging to do this, lab manager Erin Latimer told OPB, because scientists haven’t yet been able to reproduce the virus in the laboratory.

Take Action

The Portland-based group Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants (FOZE) has a better idea that would help save zoo elephants’ lives. “We don’t need a vaccine,” it said in a post on its Facebook page Nov. 30, the day the zoo announced Lily’s death. “We need to send the elephants that are captive at the Oregon Zoo and all over the world to sanctuaries.”

Over 122,000 people have already signed a Care2 petition that FOZE started urging the zoo to end its breeding program and its use of bullhooks. Please honor Lily’s memory by joining them.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.

 

Photo credit: Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants/Facebook

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