The impending arrival of an Asian elephant calf at the St. Louis Zoo is cause for both celebration and concern. Celebration, keepers say, because a new elephant helps build a safety net for a species threatened by extinction. And concern because of a deadly herpes virus that has killed about 25 percent of the Asian elephants born in North American zoos in the past three decades.
“We assume it will strike,” said St. Louis Zoo curator Martha Fischer, who manages the zoo’s elephant program. “We assumed that before we ever bred (with) Raja. It’s not something we took lightly. But when we’re facing what we’re facing with elephants — they really could go extinct in our lifetime — we have to do whatever we can to minimize that risk. There is no one who wants to see the virus strike less than us.”
The St. Louis Zoo expects 42-year-old Ellie to deliver a female calf this spring, possibly within days. Ellie is mother to Maliha, 6, and Rani, 16, and grandmother to Rani’s calves, Jade, 6, and Kenzi, who is almost 2. Bull elephant Raja is father to Maliha, Jade and Kenzi. With 10 Asian elephants, the herd will rank as the second largest zoo herd.
Fischer knows all too well the toll the virus can take on an elephant. Jade is a rare survivor of the elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus, or EEHV, which can cause massive internal bleeding. She showed severe symptoms — lethargy, limping, loss of appetite — in February 2009 and then again in December. She was treated with both oral and intravenous medications and appears healthy today. Maliha also tested positive but showed no symptoms. Researchers don’t know why some elephants are vulnerable to the virus or how it is transmitted.
Animal rights activists say the St. Louis Zoo is irresponsible to breed elephants knowing the virus is present in the herd. In Defense of Animals, a California-based organization, is calling for the zoo to halt its breeding program.
“Knowing that any infant there faces a high risk of death and disease is grossly irresponsible,” said Nicole Meyer, director of IDA’s Elephant Protection Campaign. “Why they would want to subject any vulnerable calf to this disease is incomprehensible. This disease is very painful and not only puts the babies at risk but also is hard for the mothers who have to watch their calves go through this.”
The virus has killed elephants in the Calgary Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the Houston Zoo, the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., and others. No deaths have occurred since 2010, though some elephants have shown signs of the virus. Fischer says early intervention saved Jade.
“We decided we would just be as prepared as possible and contribute to research so we can figure this out,” Fischer said. “We proved here it’s possible to get through it. I’m not going to say it wasn’t scary. It was very scary.”
Steve Feldman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits North American zoos, says the answer is to find a cure, not to stop breeding.
“You develop the science and the research and you prepare yourself to treat any illnesses,” Feldman said. “That’s how science advances.”
But to what end? The truth is captive breeding programs cannot save elephants in the wild. That would demand dramatic change from the people who have turned the forests into fields and roads, and who slaughter elephants for tusks and meat. A world without wild elephants, everyone agrees, is a very real possibility.
Meyer says breeding is therefore, at best, a futile exercise and is, at worst, a craven play for more visitors and revenue.
“Elephants are one the biggest draws, and because of that (zoos) are desperate to breed to increase their own profits,” Meyer said. “It’s misleading when zoos say they are breeding elephants to conserve the species. None of the elephants bred in captivity will ever be released in the wild.”
But while there are no plans to reintroduce elephants today, Feldman says neither zoos nor their opponents can know the future. Meanwhile, research conducted in zoos helps wild populations, he says.
“There are some extremist groups who believe that animals should be free, including free to be extinct, and we just don’t believe that,” Feldman said.
In the past decade, a dozen zoos have halted their elephant programs, citing cold weather conditions or limited space. Others have expanded or plan on expanding their grounds. The Pittsburgh Zoo built a 724-acre refuge; the Oregon Zoo announced plans to build sprawling off-site reserves; and 78 zoos, including the St. Louis Zoo, have joined forces to build a 225-acre National Elephant Center in Florida. The St. Louis Zoo’s elephant yards in the River’s Edge and new off-view Elephant Woods total about 2.5 acres. That’s more than the 1.2 acres the AZA would recommend for a herd of 10 elephants, but considerably smaller than exhibits in Dallas, Cleveland and Denver.
“Everybody focuses on the numbers, but it’s the quality of the space,” Fischer said. “If I gave them 100 acres they would all stand trunk’s distance from each other. They roam because they need to find food and water, they roam because they’re looking for females to breed. You have to look at why they move. Our elephants have everything they need right here — the food, the water, the safety, the security.”
The bigger issue, Fischer insists, is creating a strong family for the highly social species. The zoo’s herd represents three generations.
“Our program is wildly successful because of the elephants and the way they support each other,” Fischer said. “The multiple social connections — Pearl with her granddaughters, Raja with his mother Pearl and aunt Donna, Maliha and Jade with Donna, Sri and Pearl. There is no one who is not socially important with the herd. We have a commitment to this family, and it is not in our plans to break up that herd in any way, shape or form.”
Fischer acknowledges the zoo can improve its care. To help reduce foot problems — a big problem for elephants — the zoo will replace the concrete floors in the barn with a cushioned surface. The zoo also is adding sand to its yards and will start tilling the ground regularly.
Meyer regards such efforts as token measures; nothing is a substitute for space, she says.
Still, the zoo and animal rights activists do agree on one point, though for different reasons: Fewer zoos should have elephant exhibits. Fischer imagines a future with fewer but larger elephant programs.
“It’s a huge resource issue,” Fischer said. “They are expensive, in terms of money, time and energy. It’s not a species for every zoo. We are seeing zoos coming to that fork in the road and realizing they do have to make a decision about whether they are going to continue with elephants or not. ... The motivating factor has to be what’s best for elephants.”