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Packy's Tuberculosis treatment proves to be a struggle

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In 1942, Packy the elephant made international news as the first elephant born in North America in 44 years. Today, he is the oldest male Asian elephant on the continent, and his birth has created a successful breeding program within North American zoos.

Every year, all elephants in captivity are tested for Tuberculosis by swabbing the inside of their trunk. Last summer, Packy and his son, Rama, both tested positive for latent TB.

Another ball of mucus from Packy’s trunk was sent off to a national laboratory, and the news that came back wasn’t good. Packy’s TB was not latent, it was active.

This changed his treatment plan and created preventative measures for the staff who actively work with Packy.

Rama, at age 30, has tolerated his medication well and has nearly completed his treatment. Packy has not. The medications used to fight TB in elephants, isoniazid, did not react well with Packy’s liver. It cannot tolerate the medication.

Both elephants appear healthy, and neither show symptoms, but they have still been removed from the herd. They still get to play outside and be seen from a safe distance, and they are together, but they cannot interact with the other elephants or they can pass TB to them and take out the entire herd.

Tuberculosis attacks the respiratory system and in untreated cases can be fatal. It is spread through prolonged close contact with an infected individual.

The Multnomah County Health Department tested everyone who had the most contact with Rama. Out of 11 people with the most prolonged contact, four tested positive for latent TB and were given antibiotics to fight against the infection becoming active. Beyond that, 32 people were tested and one had latent TB. Not to panic, that is the average of any 32 people on the street.

The Oregon Zoo has taken a very proactive stance in keeping their employees and the elephants in their program safe.

TB has been reported in elephants since 1875 and the zoo tests for it frequently. In all, out of 480 Asian and African elephants held in captivity regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1994 and 2011, 51 tested positive for TB and of those, 45 were Asian elephants.

Packy, who has been a Portland icon since his birth has definitely worked his way into all of our hearts. Mitch Finnegan, the Oregon Zoo veterinarian treating Packy and Rama said that although we know he will have to leave us someday, “I’m gonna work really hard to make sure it’s not from this.”

Treating the elephants has proven to be a major feat. The recommended medicine for them is best in pill form, but the elephants won’t take them. Finnegan says because they taste horrible. Instead, they have to get it in powder form, mix it with water, and administer it rectally.

Treatment for Packy stopped almost immediately because he was going through musth, which happens periodically and causes their testosterone to spike making him an unwilling and unsafe patient. Once that was over, they treated him again, but because it was too hard on his liver, he stopped eating and they had to stop treatment.

Finnegan is waiting for his liver count to come back to normal before starting treatment again. “I don’t want to give up on this drug,” he stated, “It’s the best drug but it’s the drug you worry about with toxic side effects.”

In the meantime, Portlanders will be watching with bated breath and praying that their favorite mascot will beat the infection and live out his years with his herd.

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on Asian elephants, polar bears, orangutans and giant pandas. The zoo relies in part on community support through donations to the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs.

The zoo opens at 10 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.

General zoo admission is $11.50 (ages 12-64), $10 for seniors (65 and up), $8.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $4 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.

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