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Retired circus elephant spread tuberculosis to workers at Tennessee's Elephant Sanctuary

February 17, 2011 |  8:14 pm

Elephants graze at the sanctuary A tuberculosis outbreak among workers at a Tennessee elephant sanctuary in 2009 is being blamed on one of the pachyderms, even though some of the employees didn't have close contact with the animal.

Elephants can carry TB, and there have been reports of them spreading it to people who touch them. In this instance, TB spread to eight employees, though three of them didn't work directly with the elephant, according to a report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The three worked in an administrative building next to an elephant barn at the refuge in Hohenwald, about 85 miles southwest of Nashville. The 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary was founded in 1995 as a place for old, sick and rescued elephants.

One elephant in the barn -- a female Asian elephant named Liz -- had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Investigators believe the TB bacteria spread through the air when the elephant sneezed, or through pressure washing or dust from sweeping the barn of the elephant's waste.

The eight employees tested positive on a skin test and received treatment, but are not sick or hazardous to others, sanctuary officials said in a statement Wednesday.

Liz the elephant received treatment and is still alive, said Dr. William Schaffner, the sanctuary's president. According to the refuge's website, Liz was a circus elephant for many years, has been at the sanctuary since 2006 and is about 54 years old.

Schaffner, a nationally known expert on infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, is also one of the authors of the new report in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. Other researchers are from the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health. The authors called for better methods for diagnosing TB in elephants and more measures to protect employees from infection.

Schaffner said the sanctuary has made several changes, including increased use of breathing devices. He said he hopes the refuge becomes a center for studying TB in elephants and how it spreads.

This week, the sanctuary filed court papers claiming its co-founder and former CEO, Carol Buckley, created a hostile work environment and was lax about workers' health at the site.

Sanctuary officials claimed Buckley failed to implement infection controls for elephant caregivers as regulators suggested before the workers tested positive for TB.

The claim was in response to a lawsuit filed by Buckley in October. Buckley -- who was fired last year -- is seeking $500,000 in damages and visitation rights to one of the sanctuary's elephants.

Tennessee's Elephant Sanctuary looks to make a fresh start after co-founder's firing
Indian panel recommends policy changes to protect wild elephants

-- Mike Stobbe, Associated Press

Photo: Two sanctuary elephants (not Liz) graze at the Elephant Sanctuary on Dec. 22. Credit: Josh Anderson / Associated Press

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