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What Killed the National Zoo’s Elephant?
When a young Asian elephant at the National Zoo died suddenly, scientists there began to unravel a medical mystery. The work they’re doing could help decide the fate of the endangered animals. By Emily Leaman
Tim Walsh describes himself as an animal coroner—when a zoo animal dies, it's his job to figure out why. Photo by Sean McCormick.
Comments () | Published April 18, 2011

Marie Galloway has a hard time talking about what happened on April 22, 1995. It was a warm spring day, and Galloway, the elephant manager at the National Zoo, was doing her rounds. She noticed that Kumari, a 16-month-old Asian elephant much loved by visitors, seemed a little off. At first Galloway thought she was imagining it: One minute the calf seemed lethargic and uninterested in food; the next she was the sweet, sometimes mischievous toddler everyone had grown to love.

Galloway went home with nagging concerns but tried to put them out of her mind. She thought it might be a bout of colic.

The following day, a Sunday, Galloway went to the zoo to check on Kumari, expecting the elephant to be back to normal. “I mostly did it to calm my own nerves,” she says.

But Kumari had gotten worse—now she was barely eating and seemed more sluggish than the day before. Veterinarians drew blood but couldn’t find an answer. Galloway and the other keepers focused on keeping Kumari moving while Shanthi, Kumari’s 20-year-old mother, stayed close. Galloway recorded in the keeper’s log that Shanthi was “frantic” to be with her baby.

Over the next three days, the veterinary staff monitored Kumari. Everyone looked on, baffled, as the elephant’s condition worsened. Kumari wouldn’t nurse, her legs and trunk started to swell, and she had a fever. Whenever she tried to lie down, Shanthi made her stand up, using her own body to stabilize the 1,100-pound calf.

On Tuesday, Galloway and her colleagues decided to spend the night. They kept watch around the clock and tried to get Kumari to take vitamins.

Around lunchtime the next day, Galloway noticed that Kumari’s tongue had turned purple. She called the vets; the doctors, she was told, would be there right away. In the meantime, Galloway took Shanthi and Kumari outside to spend time with Ambika, one of the zoo’s older elephants. As they had every day for months, visitors gathered at the fence, excited to see the zoo’s young celebrity.

“The next thing I know, Kumari lies down,” says Galloway. “It was something she never would have done in front of Ambika, and Shanthi never would have allowed it.” Kumari was still new to the herd, and because the other elephants hadn’t yet accepted her, Shanthi was protective. “I remember looking over at Shanthi and seeing her turn and walk away,” Galloway says. “I knew it was over.”

Kumari managed to get up one last time and walk a few feet before collapsing. She died in the yard with keepers and visitors looking on, stunned.

Next: Inside the necropsy building.


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Posted at 11:30 AM/ET, 04/18/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles