Animal Health Update: African Elephant Genny C

January 28, 2020

If you’ve been to Seneca Park Zoo any time since 1979, chances are you’ve seen African elephant Genny C, who recently celebrated her 42nd birthday. Seneca Park Zoo is now home to three female African elephants – Genny C, Lilac (42), and Moki (37) – lovingly referred to as the Golden Girls, as they have all reached the median life expectancy of African elephants in AZA-accredited zoos. Genny C has shown signs of degenerative joint disease – similar to osteoarthritis in people – for over 10 years. It’s most obvious in her carpi, or “wrists,” but likely affects her knees as well, causing stiffness and pain in the joints. Last summer, Genny C also developed issues in two of the nails in her front feet, caused by a combination of factors, including altered weight bearing because of her degenerative joint disease.

Recently, Genny C has had more significant episodes of pain and difficulty walking. Her overall attitude from her appetite to interactions with her herd mates and keepers have stayed normal, but there is no doubt that Genny C is aging. Keepers and veterinary staff are managing Genny C’s comfort using a combination of therapies. She receives glucosamine and omega fatty acids as part of her diet. She also receives an anti-inflammatory (phenylbutazone) and an analgesic (gabapentin) daily, with additional pain medications administered when needed. To supplement this traditional approach, veterinary staff are also using laser therapy and medical acupuncture to provide additional pain management. Veterinary staff are monitoring her organ function, nutritional status, and immune system through frequent bloodwork. Equally important, the elephant care staff has implemented management strategies to make sure Genny C is comfortable. For example, they created a hill in the barn to give her the opportunity to lie down more easily. Keepers are ensuring that she has access to soft substrates, high quality food, and positive social interactions with Lilac and Moki.

Close-up of African elephant Genny C

While Genny C’s behavior is normal in many ways, veterinary staff are concerned about the level of pain she is experiencing. In the last couple of weeks, Genny C has begun walking at a much slower pace with decreased range of motion in her wrists, and keepers have at times observed unsteadiness in her back legs, which may indicate more significant arthritis in her knees. There is no cure for degenerative joint disease, and the condition will progress. Several of Genny C’s caregivers have known her for over 20 years, so they are attuned to any behavioral changes, and veterinary staff will continue to adjust Genny C’s care as needed.

At 42 years old, Genny C and Lilac are among Seneca Park Zoo’s longest residents, and they have inspired generations in our community to care for elephants and to conserve them in nature. Accepting that Genny C and Lilac have already lived long lives is difficult, but it allows us to provide the best care possible in their senior years. We will continue to closely monitor Genny C, and all the elephants, and share updates as they become available.