Necropsy report shows elephant Watoto had chronic, age-related arthritis

by | Oct 7, 2014

Woodland Park Zoo today released the necropsy report for its female African elephant Watoto, who was euthanized in August at the age of 45 after she was found lying down in the elephant exhibit and unable to stand on her own.

Excerpts from the press release:

According to the zoo’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Darin Collins, the most relevant finding from the pathology report was the chronic, age-related arthritis in the elephant’s leg joints, which had been described during the post-mortem examination. Additional findings in other tissues examined, such as age-related changes in heart and muscles, were mild and within expected limits and were not life-threatening. There was no evidence of an infectious disease process, in the joints or in other tissues examined. In addition, the pathologist did not find any evidence for a herpesvirus infection.

“We don’t know if Watoto fell or laid down. My clinical assessment is that she was unable to stand back up, due to the joint disease,” said Collins. Falls in elderly animals, and people, can be caused by physical conditions, such as arthritis, that impair mobility or balance. “Unfortunately, the sequence of events that occurs when an elephant is down and unable to stand becomes life-threatening in less than a few hours’ time. When lying down, large-bodied animals cannot breathe normally due to massive weight impacting their lung cavity, decreasing blood flow to vital organs and nerves, and resulting in limb paralysis.”

During multiple attempts to get Watoto to her feet, several hourly blood draws that were taken to monitor her health status showed her overall condition was in swift decline, added Collins.

“We are not surprised by the pathologist’s findings, which are consistent with those of a geriatric animal. Watoto did not show any new health concerns and her behavior and appetite were normal in the days leading up to her death,” explained Collins.

On the morning of August 22, zookeepers reported that Watoto was lying on her side in the yard of the elephant exhibit, unable to move to an upright position, an unusual behavior for her. Through many attempts, the keepers and animal health staff were able to successfully right Watoto to her feet with the careful use of crane-like machinery. “Unfortunately, despite these attempts, Watoto was unable to stand on her own,” said Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Watoto simply didn’t have any more to give. We were faced with making the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her, and we made it with compassion and deep sadness.”

Watoto was born in Kenya between 1969 and 1970, and joined Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant herd in 1971 as an orphan from the wild.

Woodland Park Zoo has two remaining female elephants: 47-year-old Bamboo and 35-year-old Chai.

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