Her Recovery Is Big News

Ambika, the National Zoo's 59-year-old Asian Elephant, has fallen ill to a blod clot in her uterus and is under close observation.
Ambika, the National Zoo's 59-year-old Asian Elephant, has fallen ill to a blod clot in her uterus and is under close observation. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

First, she wouldn't eat her beet pulp.

Then, she was having trouble sleeping and seemed to be suffering pains in her stomach.

Sure, she was up there in years: Her trunk and ears were dappled pink with age, and her four brick-size teeth were wearing out. But this was not the playful, persnickety Ambika the keepers knew.

Yesterday, the National Zoo announced what was ailing their 59-year-old Asian elephant: a blood clot in her reproductive system.

She is okay now, and the blood clot is not life-threatening, zoo officials said. Indeed Ambika was happily munching sweet hay, flavored with mustard, and mugging for the cameras yesterday. But with a 7,300-pound elephant her age -- the equivalent of 80 in a human -- one must be careful, the zoo said.

Ambika, who zoo officials think was born in 1948, was captured as an 8-year-old in India and has been living at the National Zoo since 1961, making her something of a local institution. Zoo director John Berry said he and much of Washington grew up with Ambika.

Despite her age, she has been very healthy over the years. But she grew sick about three weeks ago, head curator Tony Barthel said. Curators took notice when she started refusing food she normally favored, such as beet pulp. One keeper said yesterday it tastes like wet paper to humans, but not to elephants.

Ambika was restless at night, Barthel said during a news conference at the zoo, in Northwest Washington. "There were some signs that she had some sort of abdominal discomfort," he said. Curators could tell from the way the elephant would bend down, he said.

The staff drew blood and found her red cell count low. Keepers thought she might have colic, a stomach irritation, and tried to coax her to exercise more and eat. She responded well, Barthel said, but zoo officials still wondered what had been the problem.

On Wednesday, Ambika was sedated after her morning bath. Zoo veterinarians, aided by Dennis Schmitt, chair of veterinary care at Missouri State University and the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, did an ultrasound of her digestive and reproductive systems.

They found the clot in her uterus and determined that she had probably lost about five gallons of blood through age-related internal bleeding when she was ill. Elephants have about 70 gallons of blood.

As it turns out, the clot is now "a good thing," chief zoo veterinarian Suzan Murray said. "That is providing an internal bandage to stem further bleeding, so we're very happy that that is there."

"We're very hopeful that we will be able to treat and mitigate any future blood loss and that we'll have Ambika for several more years," Murray added.

Berry said: "Things look good . . . but we do have to remember this is a very old animal. She is one of the oldest animals in North America, and one of the oldest elephants in North America." The zoo has two other Asian elephants, Shanthi, 39, and Kandula, 5.

Elephants typically live into their 50s, and in the wild usually die of starvation after they lose the last of their six sets of teeth, zoo officials said. The zoo can help Ambika, whose last teeth are starting to crumble, by feeding her soft foods that would be unavailable in the wild, officials said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company