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Postmortem exam of Taj, North America's oldest elephant, provides rare opportunity for teaching and discovery

January 25, 2011

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January 25, 2011

When Six Flags Discovery Kingdom announced the death of Taj, North America's oldest elephant, on January 18, reports stated that she was on her way to UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

The female Asian elephant spent 33 years entertaining visitors and serving as an ambassador for wildlife education before her death at 71 years old due to complications resulting from her advanced age. "She taught millions in life and will continue to do so after she's gone," said spokeswoman Nancy Chan of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California.

At the School of Veterinary Medicine, Taj underwent a necropsy, an examination of an animal after death, which has provided a rare opportunity for teaching and discovery. With the average life expectancy of an Asian elephant at 44.8 years, this is also a chance to perform research on an elderly animal such as Taj. Chan added that, while much can be said about her longevity, Taj was kept physically and mentally stimulated her entire life– even after her semi-retirement a few years ago.

Professor Linda Lowenstine, a veterinary pathologist based in the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH), led a team of more than a dozen specialists to perform the examination. Park veterinarians, school pathologists and veterinarians in residency training assisted Lowenstine.


Ten veterinary students were also invited to observe firsthand the anatomy of an elephant, how to examine a large exotic animal, and how to determine which diseases or conditions may have led to its death. Other veterinary students will benefit from future instruction about the case.


Taj's case offers benefits to society beyond veterinary training. Lowenstine says, "This animal has become a valuable scientific resource. The Elephant Species Survival Plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides an extensive protocol for collecting tissues that will help ongoing investigations into such important elephant diseases as endotheliotropic herpesvirus and tuberculosis.

"Samples will also be shared with individuals working on basic aspects of elephant health and biology," Lowenstine says, "including one project looking at brain changes in aging elephants." School of Veterinary Medicine specialists in particular are investigating teeth, eye health and pathology of elephants in general. The studies, once completed, will be shared with zoo vets and other scientists to benefit the health and conservation of elephants, both in captivity and in the wild.


The Anatomic Pathology Service of the VMTH performs biopsy and necropsy examinations for domestic and non-domestic animals whose owners are clients of the VMTH or which belong to institutions, including zoos, aquaria, rehabilitation centers, sanctuaries, animal parks, and government agencies, with which VMTH faculty have cooperative agreements. Since 1983, School of Veterinary Medicine faculty in the VMTH have performed postmortem examinations on 18 elephants, two rhinoceroses and two hippopotamuses as well as several  wild and captive whales and hundreds of smaller wild animals. The pathology team occasionally travels to perform a necropsy on site, but most procedures take place at the teaching hospital to assure the best service and maximize student teaching.