August 15, 2015
By Claudia Feldman
The keepers at the Houston Zoo despaired when 2-year-old Mac, a favorite in the elephant barn, died in 2008. He was the sixth elephant in 20 years to be born at the zoo, then die from a little understood strain of a herpes virus.
Veterinarians at Baylor College of Medicine called their zoo colleagues with condolences, asking if there were any way they could help.
“We need a virologist,” the zoo vets responded.
Baylor herpes specialist Paul Ling had spent two decades investigating human strains of the virus, but he was ready to change course.
“Who doesn’t want to save baby elephants?” he asked himself.
Over the past five years, Ling and his colleagues at the the zoo have changed the mood in the elephant exhibit from funereal to optimistic. By perfecting blood tests that detect signs of the virus and track its presence — and developing the protocols for treatment — the Houston crew has cut herpes-related deaths in Houston to zero. They’ve had the same impact at zoos around the country, including St. Louis, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and Portland, Ore., as well as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. None of those institutions has had any elephant deaths related to herpes in the past five years, either….