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The 8,500 Pound Question

What happens when a zoo elephant dies?

Where do elephants go when they die?

It was with the sorrow of losing a good friend that staff at the Buffalo Zoo said goodbye last month to Buki, the 52-year-old elephant who died on September 28. By all accounts, the 8,500-pound pachyderm, lauded for her intelligence and sweet disposition, was a charmer. She had a penchant for watermelons, loved a good rub behind the ears, and played the harmonica.

Given Buki’s winning nature and the affection her keepers and visitors felt for her, it might seem tacky—even crude—to ponder the mechanics of elephant disposal. Nevertheless, with her recent passing, one can’t help but wonder: How do you make arrangements for such a gargantuan friend?

For elephants in captivity, life after death typically begins with a necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy. Once the examination is complete, workers use heavy equipment to transport the carcass to a burial site or a facility that can incinerate remains.

In 2002, after a female elephant died at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, a veterinarian close to that mammal explained her postmortem to the New York Times: “They lifted her on to a truck with a forklift and moved her to the burial area, where we did a complete necropsy.”

In 2006, another veterinarian commented to the University of Maryland student newspaper The Diamondback on the incineration of an elephant euthanized at Washingtion, DC’s National Zoo: “They bring it in and we cremate it. We are going to hoist it on a crane and drop it in a pit.”

September 28 was a Monday, and Buki died at 5:40am. That night, a pair of local veterinarians, one veterinary technician, and two members of Cornell University’s pathology department conducted her postmortem in the zoo’s Elephant House.

They followed the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Elephant Species Survivial Plan Elephant Necropsy Protocol, whose equipment checklist calls for items including “a continual supply of sharp knives,” a tape measure at least 2 meters long, hammers, chisels, handsaws, a hoist or crane or small tractor, and a chain saw, axe, or reciprocating saw to cut through the cranium.

Staff shielded Buki’s carcass from the view of two younger elephants, Jothi and Surapa from India, who had lived with the elder pachyderm since 1987, not long after Buki had arrived in Buffalo to retire following a quarter-century circus career. The pair, their keepers by their side, remained calm during the procedure.

With the necropsy complete, the zoo moved Buki to a storage site on the grounds. Officials had arranged to donate her carcass to East Tennessee State University. But, according to the zoo, when the school could not provide staff and a vehicle to pick up the body in a timely manner, the decision was made to bury her remains.

Ultimately, Buki was transported by truck to a burial site on private property. A forklift was used to lift her body.

Before her passing, Buki had fallen ill, losing her appetite. The postmortem will help ascertain why she died. The necropsy team discovered a large tumor in her abdomen along with several smaller ones elsewhere. Pathology tests will show whether the lumps were cancerous.

Besides helping to pinpoint a particular animal’s cause of death, elephant necropsies provide valuable information to scientists studying the creatures in broader context. Dalen Agnew, a comparative pathologist at Michigan State University who has helped perform more than a dozen of the procedures, says information gleaned from an elephant postmortem can provide insight into everything from physiology—the size and placement of organs in the body, where certain nerves run—to infectious diseases in elephants and elephant behavior.

According to Agnew, one researcher used necropsy data to argue that the pachyderms store water in a pharyngeal pouch in the throat, a finding that clarified the mystery of how elephants stay hydrated during long journeys across dry lands. In the wild, the mammals had often been seen reaching into their oral cavities with their trunks to extract water to pour on themselves, and observers had long wondered where that liquid originated.

In Buki’s case, the Buffalo Zoo supplied tissue and skeletal samples to local science institutions as well as researchers in and outside the region.

“Nobody is happy that a zoo animal dies…[But] it’s important we take advantage of that opportunity, even if it’s a tragic opportunity, to make the best of it,” Agnew said. “Those animals, their role in a zoo is as an ambassador of the wild and as an advocate for saving the wild. And even as a dead animal, they continue to serve their own species, their own habitat, their own world, by providing this knowledge that we can gain from necropsies.”

—charlotte hsu

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