Young elephant continues to recover from deadly virus at Maryland Zoo

Samson, the young male elephant who was diagnosed with a deadly virus at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore late last month, has continued to recover in recent days and has "turned a very positive corner" in his treatment, according to zoo officials.

"His energy levels are very close to normal again, he's much brighter and a lot of his symptoms have either gone away or are nearly gone," Michael McClure, general curator for the zoo's animal department, said Thursday.

McClure said he and his staff have been nursing Samson back to health around the clock for nearly four weeks and are encouraged by his recovery from the virus, known as elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus.

"It's a pretty big accomplishment what we've done here," McClure said.

McClure said 80 percent to 90 percent of elephants who are diagnosed with the virus die.

When Samson, who turned 5 years old on Tuesday, started looking lethargic on Feb. 26, zoologists began treating him for the virus immediately, because it can kill an elephant within days. Their diagnosis was confirmed, and they continued the treatment, which has included 40 times the human dose of herpes medication, gallons of diluted Gatorade and regular enemas.

In the last week, however, that treatment has been scaled back.

Samson, the only elephant born at the Druid Hill Park zoo in its 137-year history, is being monitored closely, McClure said. But the elephant is no longer receiving enemas and has been able to control his own hydration.

McClure said he's "always hesitant" to say a sick animal is "out of the woods," but Samson is doing as well as can be expected.

"His activity is up," McClure said. "He's upgraded to stability and a much better condition."

McClure said the zoo has been flooded with calls about the elephant's condition — most of them positive and encouraging — from fellow zoos and elephant researchers, and from people in Baltimore.

"It's been really great to see the level of support we've gotten from the community and other people who have dealt with this," he said. "It's been people from all over North America."

Other callers, however, have been more interested in placing blame on the zoo for Samson's illness, which McClure said isn't fair.

"We have had calls from people who are confused about this virus, to say the least," he said. "People are sort of saying that we've given him this virus somehow, and this is just not accurate. This is something the elephants carry on their own."

McClure said there is research into whether elephants pass the virus on to their offspring and why the virus can suddenly flare up in elephants carrying it. Even though elephants and the virus have been co-evolving for about 10 million years, little is known, he said.

That's made the Maryland Zoo's experiences with Samson all the more valuable, McClure said.

"As horrifying as it is, it's a fascinating opportunity to learn more about something that elephants have had for millions of years," he said.

Also on Thursday, the Maryland Zoo announced another newcomer to the zoo who, as it happens, shares a birthday with Samson.

On Tuesday, a black-and-white colobus monkey was born in the zoo's Chimpanzee Forest, in a section that the zoo's colobus monkeys share with red-tailed guenons, rock hyrax and African porcupines.

"Colobus infants are covered in white fur and cling tight to Mom's belly," McClure said in a prepared statement about the birth. "As the baby grows, the white fur will gradually change to the sharp black-and-white coloration of the adult colobus."

The sex of the infant monkey has not been determined because zoologists don't want to disturb it or its mother yet, zoo officials said.

The infant is the second baby born to the zoo's mating pair of colobus monkeys, Keri, age 15, and Bisi, age 20. The infant's older brother, Gonzo, was born in April.

The new birth was in line with the Colobus Species Survival Plan, which is coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and brings the zoo's colobus population to five — two adult females, an adult male, Gonzo and the baby.

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