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Complaint filed against zoo for elephant breeding practices

Ellie had her daughter Maliha at the St. Louis Zoo on August 2, 2006.
(Photo credit: R. Meibaum)
Ellie had her daughter Maliha at the St. Louis Zoo on August 2, 2006.

By Veronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis, MO – In Defense of Animals has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying the St. Louis Zoo is violating federal law by continuing to breed its elephants, exposing their young to herpes.

In 2009, two of the zoo's calves - Maliha and Jade - tested positive for elephant herpes, an often fatal disease.

IDA campaign director Catherine Boyle says her organization's goal is to stop the zoo from breeding its elephants and exposing more calves to the often-deadly disease. "The bottom line here is that these calves got the virus either from their mothers or from another elephant at the zoo, so the virus exists at the zoo, and it is a danger to any elephant born at that zoo."

Zoo elephant curator Martha Fischer says very little is known about how herpes is transmitted between elephants, and that existing tests don't always show when an animal has the virus.

"We're doing a lot to study that right now," says Fishcher. "It's very important that we study it, learn more about it, so that we can react appropriately and treat appropriately when we do have an issue with it, both for elephants that are in zoos, and for elephants that are in the wild."

Fischer is hopeful that researchers will be able to develop a vaccine for elephant herpes, like the one that already exists for horses.

She says captive breeding is a necessary part of elephant conservation programs. The Asian elephant is endangered; the zoo says there are fewer than 35,000 left in the wild.