Elephant Care at the Houston Zoo

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confiscated two elephants from a circus family an hour north of Houston. USDA reports alleged that the animals were malnourished and illegally bought. Elephants at the Houston Zoo, however, seem to live a pretty nice life. But one animal rights group is concerned about a problem that just hasn't gone away. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez has the story.

Forget trying to lose five or ten pounds-what if you needed to lose 2,000?

"He's massive, you see the other ones are cool, but every day, this elephant walks into that bath stall and he impresses me…"

Elephant curator Daryl Hoffman is watching Thai, the largest Asian elephant in the country, get his morning bath at the Houston Zoo.  Thai weighs about 13,000 pounds, but like most captive elephants, he's a little overweight-so they watch his diet carefully.

"It's about a pound of grain, a little bit of produce, and his hay, so we manage their caloric intake and  try to exercise them more."

Elephants at the Zoo live pretty well.  But if they're born at the Houston zoo, their chances of a long life aren't great at all. Of the 14 calves that have been born at the Houston Zoo, 6 have died from the elephant herpes virus, including Mac, the 2 year old who died last November.  So in the past year, the Zoo has teamed up with Baylor College of Medicine to research elephant herpes virus in the hopes that they can uncover so many unknowns about it.  Here's Dr. Paul Ling:

"We don't really know how it's transmitted from elephant to elephant, better diagnostic tools are needed...our long term goals are to generate a vaccine for this virus.  It's very lethal."

But not everyone thinks that research is the way to go.  This year, the group In Defense of Animals placed Houston number two on its list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants, largely because of the herpes virus risk.  Here is IDA program director Suzanne Roy

"They are a hot spot for this deadly virus, and yet they try to continue to try to breed Asian elephants, and the chances of another calf dying from that virus are high, so we believe they should not be breeding elephants there"

But elephant curator Hoffman sees things differently

"Every elephant you lose to this virus is devastating to us, it's devastating to the elephants, but unless we keep breeding them, we're never going to…with every year, with every birth, we're learning from them, and the researchers are learning, and I want my kid to grow up seeing elephants"

In fact, Dr. Ling and his team have already discovered some very sensitive tests that will help detect the virus early, and allow them to treat it. 

So every day, the Zoo's 5 elephants go about their daily business, unaware of why they are poked and prodded and asked to give urine samples.  And for the moment, they seem just fine.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez.