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Pittsburgh Zoo elephant fighting autoimmune disease

Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 2:00 p.m.
 

Umasai the African elephant watched elephant curator Willie Theison spray disinfectant on pink lesions next to the animal's huge gray ear and then daub it with cotton and medication.

In a healthy elephant, wounds in its thick skin can take months to heal, but persistent problems for Umasai led staff at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to conclude early this year that the 7-year-old, 3,400-pound elephant has a rare, noncontagious autoimmune disease of unknown origin, zoo officials announced on Thursday.

Officials wanted to make sure that Umasai, acquired from a zoo in Dresden, Germany, in 2011, was recovering before announcing their finding.

“I've been working with elephants for 34 years now, and I've never seen anything like it,” said Theison, the zoo's elephant program manager. “Initially, he was acting very depressed, not interacting with people. ... You almost had to pry him out of his stall.”

Umasai lay down or fell several times in his stall of the elephant barn and could not get up without assistance from keepers. The zoo commenced a battery of tests, and results showed Umasai did not have kidney disease, liver disease or other diseases such as herpes and tuberculosis.

Eventually, veterinarians found that his immune system was attacking his own body — a condition that Dr. Ginger Takle, director of animal health, said she had never seen in elephants.

“The tests came up positive for indications that he's circulating antibodies that are going against his own DNA. ... His immune system is attacking his own body,” said Takle, a veterinarian. “Typically in animals, the primary cause (of autoimmune disease) is never found. We don't know what caused his immune system to turn on itself.”

It remains unknown exactly what disease Umasai has, and whether it is the result of a genetic defect or something he caught, because there are very few tests specific to elephants, Takle said.

But with steroids to fight his immune response and antibiotics to keep him from catching other infections, Umasai appears to be getting healthier, she said.

“He came around very, very quickly,” Theison said. “He's back to his tough little self.”

The zoo has eight African elephants in its African Savannah area, and although Umasai's illness is not contagious, he is usually kept in a yard separate from the female elephants. Another four female elephants and one mature male are kept at the zoo's International Conservation Center in Somerset County,

Umasai continues to receive medication, gets bathed twice a day and has his lesions sprayed and daubed with disinfectant. The zoo is consulting with elephant experts around the world to refine his treatment, Takle said.

“An autoimmune disease is systemic, and we don't know (its effects) as far as his life span, but he's got a severe disease, and that's why we're being so aggressive,” she said. “He's been an excellent patient.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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