Baby elephant dies at Springfield zoo of herpesvirus

Thursday, July 18, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Dickerson Park Zoo's nationally recognized breeding program was dealt a blow Wednesday when the first Asian elephant calf born by artificial insemination died of a mysterious herpesvirus.

The nearly 3-year-old calf, named "Haji," was found about 3 a.m. by a worker in the Springfield zoo's elephant exhibit building, spokeswoman Melinda Mancuso said. He had been in failing health since Saturday, when zoo keepers noticed a 3-inch section of his tongue had turned purple and that his head was swollen.

Both are symptoms of endothelial inclusion body disease, a herpesvirus specific to elephants. Blood tests on Monday confirmed Haji had the disease, which affects the blood vessels and is generally fatal within five days. He was transported Wednesday to University of Missouri Veterinary School in Columbia for a necropsy.

The loss of Haji was particularly hard felt, Mancuso said. After some 15 years of research on the elephant reproductive system and failed attempts, a then 17-year-old Asian cow named "Moola" was successfully inseminated in 1998. The sperm was taken from "Big Mac," the Asian elephant who sired 12 calves before dying in May.

The zoo made world history when Haji was born Nov. 28, 1999. He was 41 inches tall and weighed 378 pounds -- the largest calf delivered at Dickerson Park Zoo. A recent examination showed Haji weighed about 1,965 and was 5 feet tall, Mancuso said.

Mike Keele, a committee member of American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Captive Breeding Program for Elephants, said the Springfield zoo is a big contributor to the reproduction of elephants in captivity.

"Dickerson Park Zoo helped us discover a lot about artificially inseminating Asian elephants," Keele said. "Among other things, they determined the differences in semen and how it reacts when stored -- it's different from African elephants, which fare much better."

Of the 126 Asian elephants born in captivity since 1962, only one other calf besides Haji -- last November at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. -- has resulted from artificial insemination, Mancuso said.

Dickerson Park was considered a pioneer in the herpesvirus, Keele said. It had been treating Haji with an experimental regiment of antiviral medication, antibiotics and other drugs.

The same treatment was successfully used in 1997 to treat another elephant at Dickerson Park Zoo.

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