Learning from loss: Zoo officials learning more about virus that killed beloved elephant

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OKLAHOMA CITY – As zookeepers at the Oklahoma City Zoo mark what would have been an elephant’s eighth birthday, they are working to learn more about the deadly virus that claimed her life.

In 2015, officials with the zoo announced that Malee, a 4-year-old Asian elephant, unexpectedly 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,” a statement from the zoo read.

Authorities learned that Malee died as a result of the elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus.

This week would have marked Malee’s eighth birthday. Now, zookeepers are taking time to learn about the progress being made against EEHV.

EEHV is causing the death of young elephants globally in both the wild and in human care. EEHV is carried naturally by African and Asian elephants, and can cause severe disease in elephants between 1-year-old and 8-years-old. In most severe cases, the virus can cause a bleeding disease that is fatal within days.

Last month, experts came together for the North American EEHV Workshop in Houston, including three representatives from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

“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,” said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo’s director of veterinary services. “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.

“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.”

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