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Zoo official says recent deaths do not indicate a problem

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2009 - The announcement last month that two of its elephants had contracted a potentially deadly herpes virus was enough to bring national attention to the St. Louis Zoo. Recent deaths of a gorilla and chimpanzee within two weeks of each other have brought the Zoo - fairly or unfairly - added scrutiny.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector visited the Zoo earlier this week to check for compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act. Such site visits, which are routine in the wake of an unusual animal death, include an investigation of animals' nutrition and habitat. Information about the report wasn't immediately available, according to Brie German, a USDA spokeswoman.

Two years ago, the Agriculture Department fined the Zoo $7,500 for a range of offenses after the 2005 deaths of two polar bears within weeks of each other. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement this week that "one death is disturbing, but four in as many years seems to indicate a trend."

Bill Houston, the Zoo's assistant general curator, called the deaths "unfortunate" but not indicative of a larger problem at the Zoo.

"People who understand how biology works understand that death is a part of life," he said. "Deaths occur at all different ages. Really there's no pattern here, no relationship between the cases."

It all started less than a month ago, when Jade, a 23-month-old Asian elephant, was diagnosed with endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a condition for which there is no available vaccination. Jade's half-sister, Maliha, was later found to have the same condition. It's not known how either contracted the virus.

Both elephants appear to be recovering, and tests of the Zoo's adult elephants have come up negative.

"We are feeling very good about where we are now because of how serious the virus is and how much is unknown," Houston said. "I wouldn't say [the elephants] are out of the woods, but they are responding to treatment very well."

Days after the herpes discovery, a 14-year-old chimpanzee named Cinder died unexpectedly. Preliminary test results show that the cause of death was a cardiac problem. That was confirmed on March 5, when the final results of a necropsy showed an "enlargement of the heart (left ventricular hypertrophy)," according to a Zoo press release. "Such changes may predispose the heart to a sudden fatal arrhythmia (disruption in electrical conduction) which rapidly causes death."

Indeed, Houston said Cinder, known as "the hairless chimp," had appeared to be in good health.

Then, last weekend, zookeepers found 8-year-old Muchana, one of the zoo's four gorillas, dead in his sleeping quarters. Muchana was entangled in a hemp-like rope that is commonly used in ape exhibitions. Houston said the rope didn't appear to be defective and that zookeepers regularly inspect ropes and climbing structures for safety.

"Right now I'd say this is a product that's had a good track record with zoos," Houston said.

Soon after Muchana's death, the zoo reported the incident to the USDA. Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said his group is awaiting an official report about the death. The association's accrediting commission as a matter of course reviews such incident reports.

Feldman said deaths involving ropes are "uncommon occurrences," and that all indications are that this was a "freak accident." He said the incident will likely spark a discussion among the group's members who are primate specialists about how to avoid future rope deaths.

Because Cinder's death seems to have been caused by a medical condition, Feldman said he wouldn't expect the zoo to issue a report to the association in that case. Researchers are in the midst of studying heart disease in primates.

Feldman said illnesses can be hard to spot in wild animals because they often try to hide their weaknesses. He said it's important not to draw conclusions from the multiple deaths and herpes cases at the St. Louis Zoo.

"Every species is different and every circumstance is different," Feldman said. "Zoo animals are like rock stars, so when they die they get more attention."

Feldman acknowledged that zoos come under heightened scrutiny when incidents happen in succession. Along with that scrutiny comes pressure to make changes.

"We don't make kneejerk changes in response to incidents," Houston said. "Will there be changes? Sure, just as there are new ways to care for every single species over time. But we're not making any immediate radical changes."

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