The 8,500-Pound Question: An Elephant Died at the Zoo. Now What?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was with the sorrow of losing a good friend that staff at the Buffalo Zoo said goodbye to Buki, the 52-year-old elephant who died on Sept. 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 the 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.”

Sept. 28, 2009 was a Monday, and Buki died at 5:40 a.m. 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 area on private property. A forklift was used to move 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 reveal whether the lumps were cancerous.

An elephant’s parting gift

In life, Buki served as an ambassador for her species, encouraging stewardship of natural resources by giving Buffalonians an opportunity to see an impressive animal up close. In death, the mission of promoting conservation will continue.

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 the postmortems can shed light on 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. 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.”

A version of this story appeared in Artvoice, Buffalo’s alternative weekly, in October 2009.


Dalen Agnew, an assistant professor and comparative pathologist at Michigan State University, has helped perform “in the vicinity of 14 or 15″ elephant necropsies — postmortem examinations that parallel autopsies in humans.

Agnew did not assist with the procedure on Buki, the pachyderm who died at the Buffalo Zoo in September. But the former long-time zoo veterinarian has insight to offer on the art and science of dissecting an elephant carcass.

Q: What exactly is a necropsy?
A necropsy is basically an autopsy on an animal. Here at the diagnostic laboratory at Michigan State, we probably do 1,000 to 2,000 necropsies a year on everything from frogs to rhinos. If there were elephants in Michigan, we would do the elephant as well. They come through periodically in circuses, but there aren’t any resident elephants in Michigan that we know of right now.

Q: How is an elephant postmortem performed?
It’s a systematic approach that begins with an external examination. Then we open up the carcass, take the legs off. We open up the abdomen, and we open up the thorax, and we look very carefully at the position of all the organs to make sure all the organs are positioned appropriately. This requires some knowledge of looking inside elephants, or at least some diagrams that show where those organs are supposed to be.

Then we’ll examine the animal system by system. Starting in the oral cavity, we would go through the respiratory tract, larynx, trachea, bronchi and lungs, opening each part up and examining outside surfaces and inside surfaces. Then we would start on the digestive tract, starting again from the oral cavity. We would dissect all four chambers of the heart to make sure there weren’t abnormalities. We would take very careful measurements so we could provide data to doctors who might want to examine elephants in the future, and also to taxonomists, biologists and other specialists who need to understand the physiology of an elephant.

Q: How many people does it take to perform a necropsy?
I’ve been on teams of five or six. I’ve been on teams of 30. It depends on the technology available. If you have dull knives, for instance, you need to have a team of people who just sharpen knives. Other people have done them alone. Most take six to 12 hours, depending on how involved they are.

Q: How do you move the carcass after a necropsy is complete?
It depends, again, on the circumstances. In some cases, facilities will dig a hole on the grounds and drag or carry the carcass with a front-end loader or a large tractor to the hole. Other times, remains are incinerated. If an elephant has tuberculosis, it needs to be incinerated and transported in a contained environment to the incineration site. In that case, you would be cutting the carcass up into small enough pieces to fit into 55-gallon drums so they could be transported safely.

Q: Why do a necropsy?
One reason is to provide the animal’s owner with some sense of closure, so they know what happened to the animal — why it died, what diseases it might have had. We also look for information that could help other animals in the same facility and of the same species. With elephants, right now, there are a lot of concerns about herpesviruses. It’s what we would call an emerging disease amongst elephants that can, in some circumstances, kill elephants very rapidly. That’s something we want to understand more, so we look for that during a necropsy — herpesviruses.

Q: Members of a necropsy team take tissue and skeletal samples…
Collecting and preserving samples allow us to advance scientific research. We may not necessarily be interested today in an elephant’s thymus or in its bone marrow or in a section of the spleen or something else. But if 30 years from now a scientist is interested in developing a better understanding of the spleen of an elephant, this allows us to go back and do research using previously collected samples. For horses or cows, it doesn’t take a long time to obtain samples for research. But in elephants, it’s very difficult to get enough samples from animals to get what we would call a statistically valid study.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Nobody is happy that a zoo animal dies, but it happens, and that happens to all of us and to all zoo animals. And it’s important we take advantage of that opportunity, even if it’s a tragic opportunity, to make the best of it. 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. It’s really important to do a necropsy, and it’s an important service zoos can provide. It’s another example of the value of zoos as scientific institutions. We think of them as entertainment areas, but they’re much, much more than that.

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