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October 26, 2023

Health Update on Elderly Female Asian Elephant Donna

Donna was recently diagnosed with a condition known as primary hyperparathyroidism.

Donna, one of the elderly female Asian elephants in River’s Edge at the Saint Louis Zoo, was recently diagnosed with a condition known as primary hyperparathyroidism. This is caused by a tumor that secretes a hormone that controls the level of calcium in her body. Surgery is not an option in her case, so medical management has been started, but as the tumor grows, the medicine becomes less and less effective.

Our incredible Animal Care team has a great relationship with 52-year-old Donna and because of this, Donna is actively and voluntarily participating in her own health care. She trains with the Animal Care team to allow for regular blood collections, urine sampling, hydrotherapy for joints, and takes oral medications as needed. This is in addition to continuing her daily exercise routines with her care team that focuses on strength training, balance and stretches to maintain joint mobility. Currently, Donna continues to socialize with her herd, explore her habitats, maintains a good appetite, engages in self-maintenance behaviors, enrichment activities and training sessions with her care team.

Over the past several months, the Animal Care team have noticed some gradual changes in Donna’s normal behavior due to her illness.

“Our dedicated and expert Animal Care team is doing everything in their power to make sure Donna is comfortable,” said Michael Macek, Saint Louis Zoo Director. “We want every animal in our care to thrive; however, there are times when we have to manage end-of-life, or hospice, care.”

Donna is being very closely monitored by the Animal Care team to watch for the progression of her condition and to make sure she maintains a high quality of life while dealing with this irreversible condition.

“With the recent sudden death of female Asian elephant Rani, the community support has been amazing,” said Macek. “We have appreciated it and ask for your continued thoughts as we care for Donna and the rest of the herd.”

Donna’s Story

Donna was born in the wild and came to the Saint Louis Zoo in 1971 at a young age. The median life expectancy for Asian elephant females under human care is 47.5 years old. In 2023, the Zoo celebrated the 52nd birthdays of Donna, Pearl and Ellie. Our “Golden Girls” are considered geriatric. Here’s a 2021 blog describing our loving care for the older elephants.

A fantastic auntie, Donna used to spar and play with a much younger Raja. Nowadays, she helps teach Raja’s kids manners, such as sharing food and respecting elders. It’s important for young elephants to learn how to live well in a social group of dominant females, and Donna is a great teacher!

Asian elephants Jade and Donna
Asian elephants Jade (left) and Donna (right) in August 2023. Credit Saint Louis Zoo