- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Nancy, the National Zoo's 46-year-old African elephant, was euthanized yesterday morning after her long declining health suddenly worsened.

Zoo keepers closed the Elephant House for the day. A sign on the door explained the time of mourning.

"It's certainly sad when any animal has to be put to sleep," said Marcel Taube, 35, of Arlington, Va. And even more sad, he said, since Nancy was one of a kind.

Nancy, who entertained animal lovers each morning during an elephant demonstration, will be cremated. Her tusks will be kept at the zoo, possibly as part of an educational program.

Mr. Taube remembers seeing the 10,000-pound pachyderm perform. "She would lift up her foot," he said. "She was so big."

Others were more pragmatic about the loss.

"It's just nature, you know," said Margie Chrambach, 35, visiting the United States from Ecuador. "Every one of us, even animals, has to go away sometime."

For the past two years, Nancy suffered fluid buildup in her abdomen and a bone infection that veterinarians controlled with a pneumatic tourniquet that delivered intravenous antibiotics directly to the infected toe about once a week.

"Nancy was a great elephant, and a great patient," Dr. Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo and Nancy's veterinarian, said in a statement.

"She had a wonderful life at the National Zoo and she was a favorite among zoo visitors," Dr. Spelman said. "She also taught us a lot about elephant behavior. We will miss her."

Zoo pathologists performed an autopsy to gather more information about Nancy's medical condition. Their findings will be completed in a few weeks and may reveal information useful for improving the health and management of the species.

Staff first noticed Nancy was rapidly losing weight in January 1999. Test showed the elephant had developed ascites fluid in her abdomen and had a very low blood protein level.

Nancy's ailing health was attributed to poor kidney function and poor absorption of nutrients from her intestinal tract.

Her caregivers decided against surgery due to the animal's age and overall condition. They instead administered two oral medicines that improve the immune system, prednisone and azathioprine. Nancy improved dramatically, the fluid in her abdomen resolved and her blood protein level returned to normal.

But in July 1999, she developed a bone infection called osteomyelitis in her left front foot. Elephants are prone to painful lameness from osteomyelitis because of their tremendous weight.

For more than a year, veterinarians used an innovative regimen of anti-inflammatory medicines and administered intravenous antibiotics.

The technique involved saturating the affected foot with antibiotics using a specially designed air-filled tourniquet. Nancy would willingly stand for the procedure once a week, with a watermelon treat as her reward.

Veterinarians, elephant keepers and the zoo's director made the decision to put Nancy to sleep after her condition worsened and she refused her oral medicines last week.

Nancy, the National Zoo's only African elephant, arrived from East Africa in September 1956.

"It's an accident of history we'd have an elephant from the wild in here," said Bob Hoage, a zoo spokesman. All elephants in zoos are born in zoos.

The massive, endangered creature weighed 10,000 pounds in her prime and was the institution's largest animal. The average life span for an African elephant is about 50 years, though some live as long as 70.

The Elephant House now has just three residents Asian elephants Ambika, 52, Toni, 34, and Shanthi, 24. Shanthi is six months pregnant and should deliver in December 2001.

The African elephant has bigger ears and longer tusks than its Asian cousin. Some say their ears resemble the shape of Africa.

The Elephant House is expected to be reopened today on its regular 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule.

The National Zoo in November euthanized Hsing-Hsing, the last of two pandas donated by China during the Nixon administration. The 28-year-old animal suffered from kidney disease.

Officials are working on a deal with China in which the zoo would pay $1 million a year over 10 years to borrow a young pair of pandas. The zoo has no plans for replacing Nancy.

"We will concentrate on Shanthi's pregnancy and on propagating Asian elephants," Mr. Hoage said. "That should keep us very busy."

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