Celebrity Elephant Spread TB to Humans: CDC Report

January 7, 2016
Gale Scott

A much-beloved elephant artist in Oregon recovered from tuberculosis, but not before the microbe spread to human contacts and other pachyderms at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. THe CDC calls for better surveillance.

A celebrity elephant in Portland, OR, known as “Rama the painting elephant” was one of three pachyderms at the Oregon Zoo that were infected by tuberculosis and spread it to humans.

In all, the elephants spread the infection to seven humans involved in their care, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Reported.

Writing in the January 8 edition of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Amy Zlot, MPH of the Multnomah (OR) County Health Department and colleagues said the incident showed “improved TB screening methods for elephants are necessary to prevent exposure of human contacts.”

The incident occurred in 2013.

Three Asian elephant bulls, Rama, his 51-year-old father Packy, and Tusko , and the infected people were all successfully treated. (Tusko, age 44, was later euthanized due to an unrelated leg injury.)

The first elephant diagnosed was Rama (seen in Oregon Zoo photo above) whose infection was found through a routine annual culture from a trunk washing.

Last year Rama was also euthanized, suffering from pain and immobility traced to an old injury to one leg after he fell (or was pushed by other elephants) into a moat in 1990. The zoo has since eliminated the moat.

In the TB investigation reported by the CDC, when the trunk washing cultures came back positive, the results set off a race to determine whether humans (and the zoo’s other elephants) had been infected.

Of particular concern was the fact that Rama had been the star of special events in which he used his trunk to create art.

Rama could also paint with a brush, zoo videos show.

Many found his artistic streak endearing.

According to a zoo newsletter former Rama caregiver Jeb Barsh said Rama had a "joyful soul" and that it was “perhaps expressed most memorably through his painting, an enrichment activity that grew into something bigger when Rama showed a remarkable enthusiasm for it.”"He would follow me around, just hoping for the opportunity to paint," Barsh said. "Once he grabbed a brush, there was no holding him back from the canvas."

Local art critics likened his work to Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, and Paul Klee.

The CDC investigators were less enchanted. In their Jan. 8 report, they wrote:

“Elephant A [Rama] sprayed paint with his trunk onto canvases behind attendees, potentially exposing them aerosolized M. tuberculosis.” But of 59 people who were potentially exposed as a result, 48 were located and tested for the bacillus and found to be negative.

In all, 96 human contacts were found and tested, as well as all 10 of the zoo’s elephants.

The zoo has since stepped up the trunk washings and surveillance.

The fact that elephants can contract TB was not news to the investigators. The bacillus has been found in 5% of elephants in captivity.

Survivor Packy is believed to be the oldest Asian elephant in captivity.