A story reported today by the AP and a press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell a sad, old-timey tale of one possible downside to human-elephant commingling: Between 2010 and 2014, three male Asian elephants at the Oregon Zoo gave the galloping consumption, also known as tuberculosis, to at least seven zoo employees.
The investigation into elephant-transmitted TB began in May 2013 when, according to the CDC, "a routine annual culture of a sample from a trunk washing on elephant A, an Asian elephant aged 20 years at a zoo in Oregon's Multnomah County, yielded Mycobacterium tuberculosis, indicating active, potentially infectious disease."
"Elephant A" was identified as Rama by the the Oregon Zoo. The other two elephants were Tusko and Packy. All received treatment, though since the diagnosis, two of the elephants, Rama and Tusko, have been put down for unrelated reasons. Packy, the beleaguered 53-year-old elder statesman of the Oregon Zoo elephant tribe, remains at the zoo.
Earlier today, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement about the revelations that TB was transmitted between elephants and humans, saying, "the risk to human health posed by captive elephants is serious."
When asked via email for its response to the statement, the Oregon Zoo wrote:
The Oregon Zoo elephants receive the best veterinary medicine and care available. The zoo follows strict protocols to ensure the health and safety of our animals, staff and public. According to the experts at the Health Department and the CDC, the public is not now, nor have they ever been, at risk.
According to the AP, the seven cases definitively linked to the elephants (there was an eighth case that remains "mysterious") were "a latent form of the respiratory disease" and the people infected displayed no symptoms.
It turns out TB is not that rare in elephants. "Elephants have been known to test positive for the human strain of TB in other zoos and in their range countries," said the zoo. "However, very little is known about the transmission of TB between elephants and humans."
So, should you be worried about visiting the elephant exhibit at the zoo? According to the CDC, "Close and prolonged contact, including spending multiple hours indoors with infected elephants, was associated with TB transmission in this investigation."
So unless you work with elephants, you're probably cool. Zoo employees will continue to get tested.
For elephants at the Oregon Zoo who haven't been put down recently, things are looking similarly rosy with the opening of the much-anticipated Elephant Lands exhibit. Only $57 million to finally roam sort of free.