There is sad news at The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical center this week as they mourn the loss of one of their baby elephants, Malee. Much beloved by the public, Malee was the first elephant born in the zoo, back in 2011. On Wednesday, handlers noticed him moving a little slower than normal and also noted discoloration around his mouth. He was pronounced dead on Thursday afternoon. Although they are still awaiting test results to announce the official cause of death, it is believed to have been endotheliotropic herpes, or EEHV, which causes internal bleeding in elephants. Babies between one and four years old are the most vulnerable to this highly contagious elephant disease.



This sad news has sparked some controversy, due to a long-running debate about EEHV in captive elephant populations. Both Malee’s mother Asha and her sister Chandra were known to have had the illness. However, back in April, two new elephants were transferred to the Oklahoma City Zoo from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. These elephants, Bamboo and Chai were also known to have the disease and there was some concern about them passing it on to Malee and his 9-month-old sister, Achara. In the end, staff made the decision to continue with the transfer regardless of the risk of disease, an oversight that may have cost poor Malee his life.


Unfortunately, death and disease is all too common in captive elephant populations. The infant mortality rate is shockingly high among zoo animals and it is estimated that only one in three will survive. Not to mention, captive elephants suffer from a number of conditions that are uncommon in the wild. In addition to EEHV, they are known to suffer from crippling arthritis, foot infections, obesity, and infertility. There are also a number of physiological illnesses that affect these animals as well, which are most commonly know as neurotic, repetitive behaviors.

While wild elephants have the same life expectancy as a human, 75 years, the average life expectancy among captive animals is only 20-30 years. The bottom line is that elephants do not do well in captivity. They are highly intelligent, social animals who crave open space and stimulation just as much as humans do. Hopefully, the death of Malee will draw attention to some of these issues.


Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of the Seattle-based Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants told the Seattle Times, “All breeding must stop at zoos which have had elephants who have had, or been exposed to, EEHV. Anything less is unethical.”

All image source: The Seattle Times