UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine performs necropsy on Lisa the elephant


Looking for underlying conditions and collecting stem cells to inform caretakers on healing and pain-relieving treatment for future elephants

UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine announced that Lisa—the Oakland Zoo’s 46-year-old African elephant, who was recently humanely euthanized after years of chronic and degenerative health complications—was brought in for a necropsy. The university is looking for additional underlying conditions, examining the arthritis in her front limbs, and collecting tissue samples, including stem cells that may be used to educate caretakers on healing and pain-relieving treatment for other elephants.

Lisa the elephant playing in her pool (Photo courtesy of Oakland Zoo).

Lisa the elephant playing in her pool (Photo courtesy of Oakland Zoo).

According to the release,1 Lisa was brought to the Oakland Zoo in 1979, and her decades-long residency significantly impacted her committed keepers, veterinary team, staff, volunteers, and millions of guests. She was 1 of only 16 African elephants over the age of 40 in AZA-accredited zoos. Her later years brought on several age-related ailments including ongoing eye ulcers, progressing degenerative arthritis, foot and nail lesions, and in the last few weeks, ventral edema causing excessive fluid retention in her abdominal skin, which resulted in internal and external vaginal ulcers.

Part of her medical care plan over the last year had consisted of cutting-edge stem cell procedures in collaboration with researchers and veterinarians from Michigan State University. UC Davis’s zoological medicine resident, Tess Rooney, RVT, participated as well. The procedures involved infusing stem cells from a healthy elephant into Lisa’s bloodstream with aims of relieving her arthritic inflammation, restoring cartilage, and easing her general discomfort.1 Lisa did demonstrate signs of improvement from the stem cell procedures with some improved mobility, however, her limbs and joints were still stiff and continued declining in the winter months.

The care team at UC Davis hopes the tissue samples and CT images taken as part of the necropsy will help inform the care of captive elephants going forward. “Even in death, Lisa continues to make an impact by allowing the pathology team at UC Davis to learn more about elephant anatomy and conditions affecting this incredible species,” the release concluded.


Wood T. Lisa, the Oakland Zoo elephant, continues to teach after death. News release. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. April 6, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/news/lisa-oakland-zoo-elephant-continues-teach-after-death

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