Oklahoma City Zoo announces death of beloved baby elephant

OKLAHOMA CITY - Zoo keepers are saying goodbye to one of the most popular animals at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

On Thursday, officials with the zoo announced that Malee, a 4-year-old Asian elephant, died.

"It is with profound sadness that the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden reports the death of beloved 4-year-old , female Asian elephant, Malee. She died in the early morning hours on Thursday, October 1, 2015.

Zoo keepers noticed slower than normal movements on Wednesday which continued into the afternoon, however she was eating and otherwise normal. Around 4:30 p.m., concern grew as zoo keepers noticed discoloration in her mouth. At that time, they initiated protocol treatment for EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus), although it is not confirmed as the cause of death," the zoo said in a statement.

Malee was given two treatments, but her condition declined rapidly and she died around 4 a.m. on Thursday.

"I was shocked. I had no idea they could pass so young," JoLynn Aquino, a zoo visitor, said.

"It's a real shock and a real disappointment," Dwight Lawson, CEO of the Oklahoma City Zoo, said. "This was very sudden in terms of onset.”

Experts say a necropsy will be performed to determine her exact cause of death.

However, the International Elephant Foundation doesn't seem to think that the EEHV diagnosis is very far off.

"This insidious, elephant-specific disease has a mortality rate estimated between 80 and 90% and has been the cause of death of approximately 25% of the Asian elephants born in North America since 1978. It usually strikes when the calves are between 1 and 4 years old. They most often succumb within 24 to 72 hours of showing the first symptoms. Various strains of the virus are found in Asian and African elephants in human care as well as in wild populations. There is no known cure or vaccine," the foundation said on its website.

"In most instances it's latent and the real question is why it comes out and does what it does periodically," Lawson said.

Now, zoo officials are working to determine if Malee did have EEHV.

"It will take several weeks or even a couple of months before we get all of those results back in," Lawson said.

Questions have been raised about whether or not Malee became ill after contact with two elephants who were moved to the zoo from Seattle earlier this year.

However, zoo officials say they feel confident that Malee didn't catch anything from them.

Malee's aunt, Chandra, did have the virus years ago before moving to Oklahoma City but she was able to overcome the illness.

As for how the elephants are doing, their keepers say they appear to be okay.

"They're kind of passive and I'm wondering how they grieve with that and how they're dealing with it. To lose a family member is tough alone," Aquino said.

If you would like to share your thoughts or memories of Malee, you can visit the zoo's social media pages.

Malee was the first elephant born at the zoo in 2011 and has become a fan favorite.

Earlier this year, visitors and zoo keepers celebrated her fourth birthday.