Veterinarian Reports on Poor Health of
St. Louis Zoo Elephants


Dr. Mel Richardson
April 18, 2006

Having 36 years experience with zoo animals, wildlife, and domestic species, as a zookeeper, an animal caretaker, and as a veterinarian (23 years), I feel more than qualified to review zoo elephant medical programs and give my opinion based on my professional experience. In Defense of Animals (IDA) asked me to assess the elephant records from the St. Louis Zoo and offer a judgment of the condition of the elephants as presented by their medical records. I must acknowledge I have not examined the St. Louis Zoo elephants personally, although I am willing to do so. Nor have I visited the St. Louis Zoo since 1993, when I attended the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians annual meeting. The comments in this report are based solely on St. Louis Zoo veterinary medical records ending July 2005 provided to me by IDA, as well as recent photos and video of the zoo elephants, Sri, Raja and Clara.

It is clear to me that the medical conditions documented in the records are a direct result of the classic menagerie style of exhibiting elephants still seen in so called state-of-the-art facilities. ‘Modern’ zoos are designing public spaces larger and botanically rich while decreasing the usable space for the elephants, hot-wiring vegetation just out of the reach of the elephant, small enclosures with a subsequent lack of exercise causing poor muscle tone, therefore poor joint support, leading to osteoarthritis and eventually degenerative joint disease. Enclosures are commonly made with concrete, or other unyielding substrates; chaining for long periods where elephants cannot avoid standing in their own urine and feces. Wet feet with fecal contamination predispose the elephant’s foot to toenail cracks, sole abscesses, and eventual osteomyelitis which leads to death.

Two of the elephants at the St. Louis Zoo are particularly noteworthy: Clara and Sri. Clara is a 52 year old Asian female with chronic rear foot problems. The soles on her rear feet are so thin that she wears specially made sandals all the time. I have viewed video of Clara standing and eating. She transfers her weight on her rear legs from left to right and back again…constantly. And I really do not mean shift as lifting her leg a few inches while she rocks from side to side. I mean she plants one rear foot, raises the other twelve inches or more off the ground in an exaggerated almost stereotypical way, holds that foot in the air for many minutes, then switches to the other leg. She is obviously in severe pain. She is videoed going into an unheated pool in December, apparently to alleviate the weight from her feet and legs, resting with her head against the side of the pool. I have no doubt Clara is receiving modern veterinary care; but no amount of modern technology can alleviate her visible pain. The records do not hypothesize why her soles are in such shape. One must wonder are the sandals there to help or to hide her condition? She needs soft loamy, forgiving soil to walk on with hillocks to rest against and logs to step over. She needs a natural enclosure with room to walk, not just to pace stereotypically.

Sri’s records are relatively sparse. Remarks of feet are in good condition highlight her record up to July, 2005. This is noteworthy to the medical staff because it has been reported that more than 50% of elephants in zoos have serious foot problems. And St. Louis Zoo’s own medical records bear this out with 87.5% of the elephants exhibiting zoo-induced foot problems. Even Raja the fourteen year old Asian male is already showing nail cracks and foot problems. Videos have documented his already stereotypical pacing. Sri came to St. Louis in 2002 on breeding loan from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. News reports indicate a pregnant Sri was confined to a small indoor stall for at least a month before her November due date and a time after her full-term calf died in utero. In the video I reviewed, the stall appeared no more then 25 x 25 feet in size. She is monitored by video which demonstrates her isolation and her constant pacing. Elephants are social creatures and birthing is a social event attended to by experienced mothers and aunties. Poor Sri had to try to give birth (her first I believe) in a cell…alone. Recent photos and video demonstrate her decline. With a dead fetus in the birth canal, she will most likely die from a metritis (uterine inflammation) from the autolysis and decay of the fetus which will lead to a peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal lining) and subsequent toxemia. Her veterinarians are hoping for a desiccation (dehydration) of the fetus, or mummification and she will then expel it. For Sri’s sake, I pray they are right. Unfortunately experience of other elephants and large mammals in the same scenario are weighing heavily against Sri’s survival.

Let me sum up the zoo enclosure induced problems that the elephants at St. Louis Zoo are experiencing:

Carolyn   32 year old Asian Female at death 11April2000

  1. Pyelonephritis was proximal cause of death (a young elephant)
  2. Mild Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) Left scapulohumeral (shoulder) joint with a more moderate DJD left elbow
  3. Left coxofemoral joint (hip) had severe DJD.
  4. Left stifle (knee) showed severe DJD, erosion of half of the kneecap, femur and tibia

Raja   Fourteen year old Asian Male

  1. 1.Chronic fractured tusks with infected pulp cavity on one occasion
  2. Chronic cracked nails

Clara   52 year old Asian Female with chronic rear foot problems

  1. Decubital (pressure) sores from laying down a lot presumably due to foot pain
  2. May 2000 gave Banamine (NSAID) for foot pain
  3. May 2005 phenylbutazone (NSAID) gave for foot problem
  4. As of records end still on Phenylbutazone for foot problem, although amount given was being reduced
  5. Anemia? Kidney issues may be starting from NSAIDs?
  6. Wearing sandals due to thin or eroded soles

Donna   34 year old Asian Female

  1. Nail cracks noted 3rd digit LF and 4th digit RR
  2. March, 2001 Rt. Tush fractured below gum line and abscess confirmed LF foot
  3. Lenticular sclerosis or opacity (the lens of the eye appears milky – cataract like) noted MAR 16, 2001 (Noted in the above older females as well?? Are these animals in direct sun?? Shade??)
  4. Jan, 2002 PE: Lenticular sclerosis, Obese, all four feet have circular erosions, nail cracks
  5. Jan, 2003 Annual Exam: All foot pads superficial erosions, yet normal; both tushes* grown out past gingival margin; EYES NORMAL??
  6. Feb, 2004 Annual Exam: Lenticular Sclerosis back on the table. Soft spot on LF sole breaks open then heals then breaks open
  7. Jan, 2005 Annual Exam: Nuclear sclerosis or central cataracts confirmed, “This animal has always had challenges with its nails. The nails appear very healthy and the elephant team is doing a very good job of managing the cracks in the nails.”

Sri   26 year old Asian Female

  1. Jan, 2003 Annual Exam: feet in excellent condition
  2. Feb, 2004 Annual Exam: tail wound, otherwise no problems noted
  3. Jan 7th, 2005 – tried to transabdominally ultrasound fetus
  4. Jan 25th, 2005 Annual Exam: no abnormal findings, "all feet in excellent condition"

Ellie   35 year old Asian Female

  1. Jan 16th, 2002 Annual exam: Ambulates with stiff front right limb, considered normal by keepers/curators; 3 of 4 foot pads show circular deficits; RF limb long crack on nail of digit #1 and separation between nail and foot pad.
  2. Jan 17, 2002: "Radiographs taken of all feet, interpretation to follow" Interpretation never followed!!
  3. Jan 6th, 2003: Small area over "medial left rear hoof wall to be explored..."
  4. Feb 11th, 2004 Annual Exam: Cracks LF foot nails #3 and #5
  5. Sep, 2004: Bred to Raja
  6. Jan 28th, 2005 Annual Exam: "All feet in good condition. Nail crack grown out."

Pearl   36 year old Asian Female

  1. April 27th, 2000: Prolapsed uterus????
  2. Oct 13th, 2000: fractured right tusk
  3. Dec 1st, 2000: nail crack 3rd toe left front foot
  4. Mar 7th, 2001 Annual PE: LF foot small abscess; both rear feet have soft pads due to URINARY INCONTINENCE, perineal swelling is about the same
  5. Jan 10th, 20002 Annual Exam: Urine scalding rear feet. Uterine prolapsed unchanged (no mention as to cause of prolapse?)
  6. Aug 7th, 2002 – "lameness front left quarter confirmed?"
  7. Aug 8th, 2002 – Began phenylbutazone
  8. Jan 10th, 2003 – Mal-aligned molars, rear feet soft soles
  9. Jan 5th, 2004 – “flocculent material in urine”
  10. Feb 12th, 2004 Routine PE: Minor cracks in toes, no splits in soles
  11. Mar 9th, 2004 – hematuria, pyuria (blood and pus in urine)
  12. Jan 26th, 2005 – uterine prolapse occurred 12 years ago with birth of calf. “No evidence of urine scald.” “Both back feet are in excellent condition.”

Rani   9 year old female Asian

  1. Aug 27th, 2001 – at five years old showing lameness in right rear leg
  2. Feb 13th, 2001 – stiff hind limbs, place on phenylbutazone
  3. July 4th, 2004 – Stiff rear legs again, treated with phenylbutazone
  4. Mar 22nd, 2005 – left tush broken

I believe the problems outlined above and taken from the St. Louis Zoos own medical records are caused by the exhibits and enclosures. Even with the most modern veterinary care these elephants are suffering. If St. Louis cannot provide pain free habitats for their elephants, they need to send them to someone who can.

Henry Melvyn Richardson, DVM
6372 Harvey Road
Paradise, CA 95969
Doctormel1950@sbcglobal.net

* Asian female elephants do not have a true tusk that attaches to the skull, so it is sometimes referred to in the zoo veterinary community as a "tush" instead of "tusk." 

Go back to the St. Louis Zoo page