PORTLAND — Oregon Zoo officials say their most famous elephant, Packy, now has a case of active tuberculosis and is not reacting well to his treatment drug.
Zoo staffers have been treating another elephant, named Rama, for active TB and a blood test last summer indicated Packy had a latent case. A recent nasal culture showed Packy’s TB is now active.
While Rama, 30, has tolerated his medications well, Packy has not. Blood tests show the drug isoniazid reacts poorly with the nearly 52-year-old elephant’s liver, The Oregonian reported. He stopped eating several times.
Last week, Packy’s appetite was back. Chief zoo veterinarian Mitch Finnegan is waiting for the elephant’s liver function to normalize before trying more gradual doses.
“I don’t want to give up on this drug,” Finnegan said. “It’s the best drug but it’s the drug you worry about with toxic side effects.”
If necessary, Finnegan said he’ll turn to a different class of drugs. However, the other options haven’t been used as frequently with elephants so data is limited.
In elephants as in people, tuberculosis attacks the respiratory system and if left untreated can be fatal. Health officials say zoo visitors are not at risk of catching it from the animals.
Both animals appear healthy and neither shows symptoms. They remain segregated from the rest of the herd to keep infection from spreading, but each still spends time outside.
When Rama was diagnosed, the Multnomah County Health Department tested those who had the most contact with him. Of the 11 people with closest and most prolonged contact, four tested positive for latent TB. All were offered antibiotics designed to reduce the risk of the infection taking hold.
When Packy was born in 1962, he was believed to be the first elephant born in North America in 44 years. He is believed to be the oldest male Asian elephant in North America. The zoo uses Packy’s image in logos and publicity campaigns, and it celebrates his birthday each spring with a big public party.
Last year on his birthday, demonstrators outside the zoo said curators should retire Packy to a sanctuary where he can live out the rest of his life. Zoo officials say they are working on a much larger enclosure for Packy and the zoo’s other elephants.
No one knows how Rama or Packy contracted TB. Tuberculosis has been reported in elephants since 1875. The Oregon Zoo routinely tests for it but never had a known case until late last spring, when Rama’s infection was found.
Still, a survey of 480 Asian and African elephants held in facilities regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1994 and 2011 found 51 with TB, 45 of them the Asian elephant species that make up the Oregon Zoo’s herd.