The Maryland Zoo's 4-year-old elephant Samson's serious illness with herpes is one example of how zoo breeding programs put elephants at risk ("Young elephant recovering from virus," March 14). This frightening disease causes massive internal hemorrhaging, typically affects elephants under 10 years of age, and has an 85 percent mortality rate. It's responsible for more than half of all juvenile elephant deaths in North American facilities. Death from the herpes virus usually occurs within seven days after an acute onset of symptoms, which include lethargy, swelling of the head and limbs, and a blue discoloration of the tongue.
Stress is believed to be a factor in the development of herpes because it can weaken the immune system, making an elephant susceptible to infectious diseases. Being on display in an entirely artificial environment clearly takes a toll on these keenly intelligent animals, who know they aren't where they are supposed to be.
Instead of wasting money on costly and often unsuccessful attempts to breed more elephants to keep confined in cramped and unnatural spaces, zoos would serve the species more responsibly by funding efforts toward reducing the key factors of their decline — poaching and habitat loss.
Jennifer O'Connor, Norfolk, Va.
The writer is employed by the PETA Foundation.