LYON – Seen from afar, they look so tiny. All around the small enclosure they’ve been allocated in the zoo of the Parc de la Tête d'Or in the center of Lyon, a sturdy fence keeps passers-by at a safe 20-meter distance.
"Elephant enclosure isolation perimeter. Thanks for your understanding," a laconic sign reads.
On this cold January afternoon, Baby and Nepal, the two elephants suspected of carrying tuberculosis – and threatened with euthanasia because of it – have just had their second meal of the day. And they made a point of enjoying it, unaware as they are of the death threat hanging over their heads, and oblivious to the media and legal kerfuffle they have triggered.
Even before it blew out to extravagant proportions in the last few weeks, the case was already pretty bizarre. On Jan. 2, Gilbert Edelstein, director of the Pinder circus and owner of the two elephants, wrote an open letter to Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, accusing him of wanting to "assassinate" his animals.
On Jan. 4, former French actress and animal activist Brigitte Bardot threatened to apply for Russian citizenship if French authorities stuck to their decision to euthanize the elephants. On Jan 6, about 200 people formed a human chain around the elephants’ enclosure, "to save Baby and Nepal." On Jan. 8, Monaco’s Princess Stephanie jumped in to condemn what she said would be a "radical and irreversible" decision.
There is still hope for Baby and Nepal – On Jan. 2, the Council of State agreed to hear the appeal launched by the Pinder circus against the Dec. 11, 2012 decree requiring that the two animals be put down within a month.
But how did two old (respectively 42 and 43 years-old) and rather aggressive – Pinder gave them to the zoo because they fought with the others – circus elephants suddenly become the center of such a heated debate? So much so that they now have the full attention of France’s highest administrative court… The media circus has undoubtedly much to do with Gilbert Edelstein’s pugnacity and connections.
Animal rights movement are gaining momentum – a petition to save Baby and Nepal garnered more than 80,000 signatures on the Internet. But if the case of these two female Asian elephants, which has been plaguing the city of Lyon for the past two years, has taken such proportions, it is also because it raises a delicate and complex health issue.
It all started in 2010, when the Parc de la Tête d’Or’s new vet David Gomis (now working at the Montpellier Zoo), decided to run a serological test for tuberculosis on the two elephants – who had been entrusted to the zoo in 1999 by the Pinder circus. Over the past 10 years or so, the disease had been found in many elephants living in captivity. However, the tests are hard to interpret and cannot tell with certainty whether animals are infected or not. But "better safe than sorry," as the saying goes, so much so that in Jan. 2011, Baby and Nepal were quarantined, together with another elephant named Java.
When Java died in Aug. 2012, an autopsy was performed. On Dec. 11, 2012, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupation Health & Safety (Anses) gave local authorities the results of the analysis: Java was carrying the Mycobacterium tuberculosis strain – the causative agent of most cases of tuberculosis, highly contagious and transmissible to man.
Dangerous to humans
On the same day, the prefect of the Rhône region, Jean-François Carenco, signed a decree urging the city of Lyon to put down Baby and Nepal within 30 days – a position the prefect says he still "fully stands by." "Let me remind those who insult me by asking me for ‘humane’ treatment, that we are talking about two elephants, i.e. animals," he insists.
"According to health and safety regulations," says Carenco, "any animal that has been in close contact with an animal diagnosed with this disease is considered sick. Both these elephants are therefore sick, from an administrative point of view. If they were to contaminate a child tomorrow, I would be held criminally responsible."
Shortly after, the court decided to take precautionary measures, to limit the population, -- and especially the elephants’ caretakers -- from being exposed to the disease. The latter, since Java’s autopsy results, do not go near Baby and Nepal without wearing a sort of deep-sea diving suit.
A date for the euthanasia is chosen – but is then postponed by the prefect, who is feeling the pressure now that the case is being followed closely by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Many aspects of this story are unclear, starting with the reality of the infection, whose start and severity are very difficult to determine. Should new tests be performed on Baby and Nepal, as Gilbert Edelstein advocates? "From a medical point of view, a positive response to this new test would reinforce the suspicion of Nepal and Baby’s exposure, but a negative response would leave us in the same state of uncertainty," says Marc Artois, a professor of infectious diseases at Lyon’s veterinary school, VetAgro Sup. Not everyone is as cautious.
Supposing that Baby and Nepal do carry the tuberculosis bacteria, is there any way of treating them? "There is a stark difference between certain American zoos, where elephants are treated for tuberculosis, and the attitude in Europe, where experts advise against treatment," says Dr. Artois.
Local breeders associations point out that TB treatments are very long and complicated, and can lead to developing antibiotic resistance, and because of this, are strictly reserved to humans. Since they have to put down their entire herd when one of their animals is sick, they have difficulty understanding why things should be different for the two residents of the Parc de la Tête d'Or. But an elephant is not a cow, and the decision taken regarding Baby and Nepal could set a precedent.
Of course, health and safety regulations stipulate that tuberculosis must be declared when discovered in any animal species. But when a case is reported in a wild animal living in captivity, authorities face a regulatory vacuum and are free to decide whether the case requires quarantine, treatment or euthanasia. So the question is – is it possible to manage the risks to public health without threatening endangered species?
“If we decide to put down all the zoo animals carrying tuberculosis, we risk killing off endangered species. What happens tomorrow, when we realize that orang-outans or other primates in captivity are carrying the disease?” asks Dr Ollivet Courtois, for whom it is urgent to find alternatives to euthanasia, starting with better screening for the disease.
Could Baby and Nepal be put in quarantine, as some organizations have suggested? Gilbert Edelstein wants to build them an enclosure on his private property.
Jean-François Carenco isn’t against finding other options to euthanasia. “I have found a place where they could go,” he says.