Inside This Issue:

  • Elephant at Houston Zoo Is First Recipient of New Herpes Vaccine
  • Environmental Econ or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bat
  • Dog Training Facility Owner Arrested after Investigation into Dog Deaths
  • Przewalski’s Horse, Once Extinct in the Wild, Has Its Genome Mapped
  • Monitor Lizards: To Save Them, We Have to Poison Them

Elephant at Houston Zoo Is First Recipient of New Herpes Vaccine

Elephant Endothelial Herpes Virus (EEHV) is a dangerous herpes virus found only in elephants. Elephant-specific herpes viruses have been a constant companion with the species, and have evolved along with elephants for tens of millions of years. EEHV is present in both wild and captive populations of elephants and affects both African and Asian elephants.

When humans first encountered this virus in captive elephants, it was a horrible mystery. It was usually fatal and often killed calves. But over time, handlers, zookeepers, and veterinarians began to unravel what was causing the tragic deaths. Once EEHV was identified, protocols and treatments were developed, but unfortunately, once symptoms arise there is a very small window of time to reverse the viral load and save the elephants.

But the times may be changing! After years of research and collaboration, an amazing breakthrough has been developed: an EEHV vaccine that is ready for trial. The first recipient of the vaccine was Tess, a 40-year-old female that lives at the Houston Zoo. This achievement is the result of a worldwide network of elephant professionals. And we can't stress enough that it has been a hard road, thanks to the complexity of the virus and the difficulties in studying it.

Until the vaccine is more widely available, institutions will continue to monitor viral loads via weekly blood draws and follow established EEHV protocols, which include cycling antivirals and increased fluid intake. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but the future of elephants in human care and the wild is looking a whole lot brighter now!



Environmental Economy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bat

Nothing like relaxing with a cold one after a long day of increasing property values.

A few years ago, a research paper was published that outlined the way declining bat populations could economically harm farmers. At first blush, this topic might seem a little batty (sorry), since bats don’t usually rush to the forefront of our consciousness when we imagine agriculture. When we think of bats as helpful, it is usually in terms of mosquito control. But the ecological niche bats fill is vital to farmers. That is because these winged mammals just love eating crop-killing pests. Bats eat so many pests, in fact, their presence – or absence – directly affects the profitability of farmland. And the U.S. has a lot of farmland!

Alas, bats are currently facing the scourge of white-nose syndrome, a devastating fungal disease that has killed millions of bats and entire colonies since its introduction into the US during the aughts. With this in mind, the research paper tallied up the disease’s economic “cost to society” – agricultural, reduced property values, etc. – and came up with $420-500 million per year.

We can quibble over the methodology and whether that cost seems low, high, or just right (for what it's worth, the paper's authors feel they were being conservative). But there is a fundamental truth behind the numbers: when an ecosystem is altered, its changes go beyond aesthetics and livability. There are always less obvious, though just as real, associated economic costs for human beings, too. Parsing the costs, benefits, and trade-offs in managing and protecting the environment is the job of an environmental economist – currently a very rare job, but a growth field if we’ve ever seen one. This fascinating interview we’ve linked to covers the work of one of the bat paper’s co-authors, Dr. Amy Ando, whose research puts a price tag on animals and ecosystems. She does this not because “environmental economist” is some kind of grotesque oxymoron, but rather, because speaking in dollars and cents helps society to better understand the value of the ecosystems they live in. It might not be the most altruistic sounding thing, but it's true. For example, if we know a critter provides us value in the form of, say, tick control,* we're a lot more likely to expend effort looking after it.

* Sadly, the opossum's status as "tick eradicator" has been recently debunked, but the principle remains!



Dog Training Facility Owner Arrested after Investigation into Dog Deaths

Fleurie, one of the dogs that died while in the care of Pawsitively Paradise. Photo: Turner Benoit.

The owner of Pawsitively Paradise, a Florida dog training facility with a troubled history, was arrested this week after an investigation into the death of three dogs that died while in her care. Two sets of forensics experts determined that two of the dogs died from blunt-force trauma, while a third dog choked to death on its own vomit.

After this story was publicized, numerous dog owners came forward to report that their pets suffered injuries and even death while staying at the facility, too. The county sheriff’s office believes criminal acts have been going on there for several years. Considering all the citations the facility has received and the owner’s worsening reputation throughout the community, that seems like a reasonable suspicion.

There is some element of risk in nearly every choice we make for our pets. We choose their meals, where they sleep at night, we choose their veterinarians and their trainers. But no matter how perfect we want to be as owners, there are no truly perfect choices, and there are always trade offs. However, one thing we always want to believe is that we can trust in the competence and – especially – good intentions of the professionals we leave our pets with. It is terrifying to think that we can't. This is such a sickening, tragic loss for the pet owners whose companions died. And for those of us who are just learning about this story, there is no doubt a sense of broken trust along with the outrage.



Przewalski’s Horse, Once Extinct in the Wild, Has Its Genome Mapped

There's wild horses, then there's the Przewalski's horse.

Przewalski's horse, also known as the Mongolian wild horse or takhi, is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse native to the steppes of central Asia. In the 1960s, they were classified as extinct in the wild, after their numbers plummeted due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition with livestock. However, through intensive conservation programs, including captive breeding and reintroduction projects, their numbers have gradually increased.

Now they are classified as "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List. They are considered the only true wild horse species, with no known domesticated ancestors, unlike other wild equids which are feral descendants of domesticated horses. Genetic studies have confirmed that Przewalski's horse is indeed genetically distinct from domestic horses, despite interbreeding efforts in captivity. 

Today, those genetic studies go a few steps deeper. Researchers from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Science have been able to successfully map the genome of the Przewalski’s horse using DNA from a female horse in the Minnesota Zoo. The complete genome will allow researchers and conservationists to work together to further advance the horse's Species Survival Plan – one that has been highly successful, especially at the Minnesota Zoo. Mapping the horse’s genome data, while highly impressive in and of itself, has real-world applications: this data helps us to treat genetic diseases and disorders, and provides useful insights into the ways mutations could affect the species in the future.



Monitor Lizards: To Save Them, We Have to Poison Them

Eat me. I dare you.

One thing that differentiates NAIA from other animal welfare nonprofits is that we keep the costs, benefits, trade-offs, and unintended consequences of animal policies in the forefront of our analysis. Admittedly, this nuts-and-bolts approach is less likely to demand viewer attention (and, sadly, donations) than pleas for help accompanied by images of abused animals and heart-rending ballads. But we believe this approach is essential for achieving our goals of a better-informed society and meaningful, positive changes in animal policy and philosophy.

That being the case, no discussion of unintended consequences in animal policy is complete without mentioning the Cane Toad. This enormous, voracious amphibian was introduced to Australia in 1935 in the hopes it would stuff itself full of cane beetles, protecting the nation’s sugarcane crop. The toad performed poorly to middling in its pest-control role, but it loved its new environment, and has been an out-of-control menace ever since. This invasive toad has devastated ecosystems throughout Australia, reduced the population of monitor lizards in some areas by up to 90 percent, and to add insult to injury, it’s poisonous, too! So if your pet eats one, it means a stressful, expensive trip to the vet – or in extreme cases, death.

Numerous anti-toad tactics have been employed in an effort to control or eliminate cane toads, some brutal, some a bit more elegant. The current general consensus is that ridding Australia of these toads is too Sisyphean to work at this point, so efforts are centered around controlling their spread and preserving species threatened by the toad's arrival.

When it comes to preserving the aforementioned monitor lizard in the face of imminent cane toad invasion, saving them might mean poisoning them… just a little. In areas that cane toads have already invaded, the lizards found the toads irresistible, gobbled them down like popcorn, then inevitably died. This predator-prey relationship makes coexistence difficult, to say the least! However, researchers have discovered that it is possible to teach an old species new tricks. By getting ahead of a toad invasion and deliberately releasing eggs, tadpoles, and smaller, younger toads in areas that are heavy with monitor lizards, researchers have taught the lizards a life-saving lesson: "Hey, these delicious-looking frogs make us feel like garbage!” It’s a rough lesson, but populations of lizards that have been exposed in this way take their licks and tend to survive, while populations that first meet larger, more poisonous adult cane toads tend to die off. Whether this works as a long-term strategy remains to be seen, but early results are hopeful – and talk about costs, benefits, and trade-offs!


Also in the News...

★     People and animals flee as Ruidoso fire continues to grow (Wildfires; Pets & Livestock)
★     Alleged bestiality bus with dozens of animals stopped in Pennsylvania (Horrific Rescue Tales)
★     How zoo staff keep animals cool during a heat wave (Zoos & Conservation; Hot Weather Animal Care)
★     Studying coyote urine may offer clues into the animal's social communication (Scent Marking; Worth a Thousand Words?)
★     These Gray Whales Are Shrinking and Scientists Aren’t Sure Why (Possibilities: Weather, Nutrients, Fetal Development)
★     Western Governors to Explore ESA Reform, Says Wyoming's Mead (ESA Challenges & Changes)
★     International air freight teeming with animals (Horses and Fishes and Chickens, Oh My!)
★     17 weirdest animals: meet the weird freaks and oddballs of the natural world (Fun & Goofy Lists; Hail to the Freaks!)

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