ST. LOUIS — An Asian elephant calf is due any day at the St. Louis Zoo, inspiring both joy and worry amid the backdrop of a deadly herpes virus that already infected one of the herd.
The virus has killed about 25 percent of Asian elephants born in North American zoos in the past three decades. An animal rights activist told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it is irresponsible to breed elephants knowing the presence of the virus in the herd.
But Martha Fischer, the zoo curator who manages the elephant program, said breeding is important for an animal threatened by extinction.
The zoo expects the 42-year-old mother, Ellie, to deliver a female calf. Ellie is mother to Maliha, 6, and Rani, 16. Rani's has two calves, Jade, 6, and Kenzi, who is almost 2. Bull elephant Raja is father to Maliha, Jade and Kenzi. The new calf will make 10 Asian elephants, the second largest zoo herd.
"We assume it will strike," Fischer said of the virus. "We assumed that before we ever bred (with) Raja. It's not something we took lightly. But when we're facing what we're facing with elephants — they really could go extinct in our lifetime — we have to do whatever we can to minimize that risk. There is no one who wants to see the virus strike less than us."
Jade is a rare survivor of the elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus. Known as EEHV, it can cause massive internal bleeding. Symptoms include lethargy, limping and loss of appetite.
Researchers don't know why some elephants are vulnerable or how the virus is transmitted, but deaths blamed on the disease have happened across the country and in Canada.
The California-based animal rights group In Defense of Animals wants the zoo to stop its breeding program.
"Knowing that any infant there faces a high risk of death and disease is grossly irresponsible," said Nicole Meyer, director of group's Elephant Protection Campaign. "Why they would want to subject any vulnerable calf to this disease is incomprehensible. This disease is very painful and not only puts the babies at risk but also is hard for the mothers who have to watch their calves go through this."
Steve Feldman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said the answer is to find a cure, not to stop breeding.
"You develop the science and the research, and you prepare yourself to treat any illnesses," Feldman said. "That's how science advances."
Meyer said other motives may be in play.
"Elephants are one the biggest draws, and because of that (zoos) are desperate to breed to increase their own profits," he said. "It's misleading when zoos say they are breeding elephants to conserve the species. None of the elephants bred in captivity will ever be released in the wild."