Zoo Bull Elephant Battles Rare Disease


(Pittsburgh) (2013) –The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s young bull elephant is suffering from a very rare disease not normally diagnosed in elephants.

“After extensive testing, we have diagnosed our young male elephant, Umasai, with an autoimmune disease,” says Dr. Ginger Takle, Director of Animal Health at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “Once diagnosed, we immediately began aggressive treatment.”

“The young elephant initially had skin lesions which healed very slowly and didn’t respond to antibiotics. We knew something was seriously wrong when we found Umasai lying down in his room several times unable to get back up on his own,” says Willie Theison, elephant curator.  “We were baffled as to what was causing his unusual behavior because elephants don’t lie down for extended periods of time without trying to get back up.”

Dr. Takle and the veterinary staff immediately began running numerous tests to determine a cause and to rule out specific diseases such as kidney or liver disease, and the elephant herpes virus, which can be fatal in elephants. “We were glad when those tests all came back negative,” says Dr. Takle. “Treating animals is a unique situation. You cannot ask them to tell you what is wrong or what they are feeling. You have to look at their clinical signs and changes in behavior and appetite.”

Additional testing led to the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease which explained his clinical signs. In any species, including African elephants, the immune system functions to protect the body from disease and infection.  “With autoimmune disease, the body actually turns on itself and begins attacking normal cells,” says Dr. Takle. “Some of the symptoms of autoimmune disease can include skin lesions, weakness, and gastro-intestinal signs. Fortunately, it is not contagious.”

Unlike human skin, elephant skin heals very slowly. The thickness of the elephant's skin, in addition to the anti-inflammatory medication he is on for his autoimmune disease results in an extended length of time for abrasions to heal. Therefore, the blisters Umasai has received from his disease and falling in his stall will take an extended period of time to heal.  A superficial skin wound on a person can heal in seven days, however in an elephant this same process can take six months to a year.  

 “We will do whatever it takes to successfully treat him,” says Dr. Barbara Baker, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

 Umasai arrived at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in 2011 through a partnership with the Dresden Zoo. “We have experience working with bulls, so the Dresden Zoo asked us to provide a home for Umasai,” says Mr. Theison.



Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium Members receive free admission for an entire year.


The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is open year round.  For directions, hours, tickets, and group sales information, call 412-665-3640 or visit at pittsburghzoo.org .  The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  Look for the AZA logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things. For more information, visit www.aza.org