The Albuquerque BioPark has teamed up with the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department at the UNM Health Sciences Center in order to ensure that Daizy, a three-year old Asian Elephant, stays healthy.
With funding from the New Mexico BioPark Society, Dr. Michelle Ozbun, a virology specialist, and her team are conducting regular screening for EEHV, elephant endotheliotropic herpes viruses.
EEHV is a naturally occurring and devastating strain of herpes virus that has an 80 percent mortality rate among captive populations. Juvenile elephants are most vulnerable.
"It's probably the scariest thing we elephant professionals face," said Rhonda Saiers, Elephant Barn Manager at the Biopark. "By the time we see symptoms, the baby is generally gone within 24 – 48 hours."
As with human herpes, the disease can be latent. Early detection and immediate intervention is critical for success of treatment, yet the symptoms vary and are difficult to determine—lethargy, stiff legs, colic, and discoloration of the tongue.
Regular testing and working with the Virology Lab at UNM, rather than having to send the samples away, allows the BioPark to be "one step ahead" with Daizy, who was born at the zoo and has become a model of how to counteract the threat of EEHV in a captive herd.
Nearly from birth, Daizy's training has prepared her to work with the barn staff so that they can conduct regular blood tests and other health-related check-ups.
The BioPark Elephant Barn, which is one of the most highly regarded facilities in North America, follows a practice called "protective contact," which means that all direct encounters with humans are voluntary, including blood draws. So, Daizy has to choose to present her ear and stay still for the needle.
"There's nothing that I can do if a 3,000 pound baby doesn't want to do what I'm asking," said Saiers.
Twice a month, blood is drawn from Daizy and transported to the UNM Virology Lab, where a technician purifies the sample to extract the DNA and then performs a quantitative PCR test to see if any EEHV viral DNA is present.
"The test is not really very difficult for us to do in the lab and it's a great way to be involved in a community service," said Ozbun.
Undergraduates have also participated in the lab component to learn basic concepts in microbiology.
Ozbun and Saiers hope that the success of this unique collaboration will encourage future interactions between UNM HSC and the ABQ BioPark.
Ozbun also sees research on EEHV as part of a larger purpose to increase understandings of pathogens.
"Even though it's not directly related to my work or to health in humans, it's looking at how viruses might be transmitted or cause disease in animals and trying to be in that front where you are making a direct contribution to preventing disease, so it's very exciting," said Ozbun.