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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Citing virus, groups say zoo should not breed elephants

Elephant herpes is so pervasive and fatal that it's irresponsible and "ill-conceived" for Woodland Park Zoo keepers to breed once again...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Elephant herpes is so pervasive and fatal that it's irresponsible and "ill-conceived" for Woodland Park Zoo keepers to breed once again an elephant who already lost one daughter to the disease, according to several animal-rights groups.

Statistics on the prevalence of the herpes virus in zoo elephants were released Tuesday by In Defense of Animals (IDA) and two local animal-rights groups who called for an immediate end to the breeding of Woodland Park Zoo elephants.

Woodland Park Zoo deputy director Bruce Bohmke said Tuesday that the zoo is committed to its breeding program and could attempt to inseminate Chai as early as January.

He said he believes breeding elephants in captivity increases the species' chances of long-term survival.

Chai, a longtime resident of the Seattle zoo, gave birth to Hansa more than six years ago after several unsuccessful insemination attempts.

Hansa, whose birth was heralded and whose name was chosen in a zoo-sponsored contest, died in June from a new strain of herpes that was unidentified until her necropsy.

Bohmke said herpes infections are known problems among captive elephants.

Nevertheless, he said, it's the stated mission of the breeding program to both preserve the genetic code of a particular captive species and to work toward education and conservation of native habitats.

Bohmke said that the herpes virus is found in wild elephant populations and that researchers hope that medical advances will allow caretakers to better diagnose and treat the highly fatal virus.

According to IDA, 10 young elephants in U.S. zoos have been stricken by the virus, including Hansa and a 16-month-old female who died at Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri on Saturday.

The documents released by IDA suggest that at least 20 percent of the all zoo elephant deaths are caused by herpes infections, according to IDA campaign director Catherine Doyle.

Doyle said it is irresponsible for the zoo to continue its breeding program with elephants that are known to have been exposed to the virus.

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Bohmke said that 40 years ago, zoos in North America were unsuccessful at getting gorillas to breed in captivity but because of advances in medicine and husbandry, zoos now have a healthy breeding population that is genetically sound.

He said zoos believe, in time, they can do the same with elephants.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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