|Two year old Fitz
Terrible news this week, that African Elephant Baby Fitz, just short of his fourth birthday, had been diagnosed with the deadly elephant herpes virus. We all hoped that he would be one of the rare ones who pulled through, but he died Friday night. The last day of June. The last day of Fitz.
Fritz with the big ears. Summer of 2022
He would have been four years old on August 2, and I am sure the zoo was already planning what they would do to celebrate his birthday. For Fitz was a phenomenon at the Louisville Zoo, beloved by all who met him, and especially his keepers.
Fitz following his mom Miki. - January of 2023
Fitz was part of a very unusual mixed herd: his African elephant mother Mikki and his beloved Aunt Punch, who is an Asian elephant. The two ladies have been together at Louisville almost all their lives. Mikki is 38 years old, and Punch is 53 years old.
Fitz was conceived through artificial insemination, the donor father being Jackson, an elephant in Pennsylvania.
Fitz and his dirt pile - January 2023
Fitz was a joy every day of his life, for all those who worked with him, and the many visitors who grew to love him.
Fitz at almost two years of age, playing with a block of wood.
Everything is a toy.
When he was little, he spent a lot of time trying to figure out how his trunk worked. That was fun.
Fitz was so curious, always checking things out, running from one thing to another, enjoying what each season had to offer.
July of 2022, a year ago, Fitz rolling in the mud
He never met a puddle he didn't like, and relished rolling in the dirt and mud. A very messy little boy indeed. Snow was a great adventure too, even though he didn't get very many winters, only four.
His life was cut short, but it was a life filled with fun and love. He made every day count. He was a very important member of his herd and greatly loved by all the visitors.
Mikki had had a previous son, and that did not end well either. Scotty died at age 3 in 2010 of what they called complications of colic, most likely twisted bowel. Jackson was also the donor father for Scotty.
Elephants have complex emotional lives, and great attachments to members of their herd. When a member of the herd dies in the wild, the other elephants hold what seems to be a "wake" where they all take their time saying goodbye to the deceased. It is an important ritual in elephant culture.
So in a zoo, the keepers allow the other members of the herd to take their time in saying goodbye. It may be especially difficult for Mikki, as she is the mother, but Auntie Punch had a good deal to do with bringing up Baby Fitz.
It is a difficult time for the keepers too, who had daily contact with the little guy and delighted in watching him grow up, coming up with new things to intrigue the baby as he developed. The elephant house and yard will be so quiet now.
I am not an expert, but this is some of the information I have gathered about Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus.
There are a number of strains of the EEHV, and they affect young elephants in the wild and zoos, more so for the Asian elephants.
EEHV is a disease of the young. Very seldom will an elephant over the age of 10 succumb to the disease. Adult elephants carry the virus but it remains dormant. Nursing calves get immunity from their mother's milk, so rarely do they come down with the almost always fatal disease. The danger comes at weaning, and stays through adolescence.
The elephant community has been working for years to find a cure or a vaccine, but so far their results are limited. There are many new treatments, transfusion, anti-virals, and every effort is made to save a young elephant, but it is usually not enough.
Minh-Tan and his mother Douanita in Osnabruck Germany
A few youngsters have recovered, but not many. I recall visiting young Asian elephant Mihn-Tan at Osnabruck Zoo in Germany when he was about a year old in 2019. He became very ill when he was about three years old. Intensive treatment resulted in his recovery after several weeks. He lives in Heidelberg now, very well and happy. A baby elephant in Chester England also survived the virus.
The list of Asian elephants who have died from EEHV is very long, but only a handful of African elephants have died this way. Four of them: Nyah and Kalina of the Indianapolis Zoo, Lucas of the Toledo Zoo, and now Fitz, are offspring of Jackson.
African Elephant Nyah died at age 7 and her sister Kalina died at age 8, a week apart at the Indianapolis Zoo in 2019.
Lucas and his mother Renee in the Toledo Zoo in 2013
Lucas was born June 3, 2011 in the Toledo Zoo, son of Renee and the donor father Jackson. He died of EEHV in April of 2021, ten years old. Renee is now pregnant again and expected to deliver in Spring of 2024. The donor father is again Jackson.
Jackson has fathered a good number of African elephant children that have grown up to be healthy adult elephants.
Some zoos seem to have avoided EEHV, while others will lose two young ones in quick succession, even though the disease is not actually transmissible. Almost all elephants have some form of the virus but it is dormant. The activation of the virus, already in the animal, seems to be brought on by stress, such as in weaning or some other change of routine. Certainly illness in the elephant house has to be a stressor, and maybe that is why the disease takes one young one after the other.
Raj in Hagenbeck Zoo, Hamburg Germany, June of 2019
He died of EEHV in 2022
Hagenbeck Zoo and Chester Zoo have been particularly unlucky. Kanja and Anjuli, Asian elephants of Hagenbeck, died one after the other in 2018, the same year their brother Raj was born. He died of EEHV in 2022. The three elephants share the same father, Gejendra, who is now in Munich and is the father of young Otto who is doing well in Munich, (also Ludwig, who is now 12 years old and in another zoo). I have to wonder if there is a genetic component, that some herds are more vulnerable to triggering of the dormant virus due to their bloodlines. Chester Zoo in England has similar sad stories with the Asian elephant children.
Rosamond Gifford Zoo, in Syracuse NY, is well known recently for the miracle birth of twin baby Asian elephant brothers Yaad and Tukada, born to Mali and Doc in October of 2022. That zoo saw tragedy in 2020 when Ajay, age 2, died on December 8, and five year old Batu died three days later. Mali and Doc are the parents of the young ones who died. I hope both the twins will continue to stay healthy.
The disease is dormant in pretty much all elephants, and the danger of it becoming activated is greatest between ages 2 and 8, although Asian elephant Beco in the Columbus Zoo was 13 years old when he died of EEHV a year ago. Lucas of the Toledo Zoo was almost 10 years old when he succumbed, at an age when a young elephant should be presumed safe from this tragedy.
The ABQ Biopark in Albuquerque also experienced the double tragedy of losing two young ones when three year old Asian elephant Thom died on Christmas Day 2021, and his 8 year old sister Jazmine died the day after New Year's.
EEHV is the leading cause of death in young Asian elephants, while African elephants face a much lower risk, but it is still there. Zoos test all the elephants regularly to make sure the virus has not activated, and there are several strains too. But once they detect that the virus is no longer dormant, the affected elephant has but a slim chance to beat it.
The research goes on, and hopefully we will soon have a cure and/or a vaccine to keep this tragedy from recurring.