Zoo Knoxville: Mysterious reptile deaths most likely caused by toxic agent

Surviving animals in Zoo Knoxville's reptile complex were evacuated and given oxygen. Each unresponsive animal was checked for a heartbeat with ultrasound equipment.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Lab results found 34 reptiles deaths at Zoo Knoxville in March were most likely due to a toxic agent, but questions still surround the sudden deaths.

The animals were found dead in their cages by zookeepers on March 22. All of the reptiles died in the zoo’s reptile complex. After the animals’ death, the decision was made to take the building out of use.

Previous story: Zoo Knoxville on the deaths of 33 reptiles: ‘It may remain a mystery to us’

The zoo said they are still not sure how the reptiles were poisoned. The blood of affected and unaffected animals was tested for multiple toxins and none were found, but veterinarians at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine determined swollen blood vessels and changes in the liver and heart of the animals were consistent with a toxic agent.

“Lot of snakes are gone, lot of reptiles are gone and it’s surprising,” said Adam Gromley walking through the exhibit with his two children.

Changes are being made. Zoo Knoxville has decided to take the building where the reptiles mysteriously died out of use. A system-wide check was done on all the buildings within the reptile exhibit.

“We had hoped for a definitive answer to what happened so we can make sure it never occurs again,” said Zoo Knoxville President and CEO Lisa New. “Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to this situation and therefore we will not take the risk of housing animals in this building. While this does affect the number of animals we have on view in the short term, this will in no way impact the internationally recognized work our herpetologists do to save critically endangered reptiles. That will continue. If there is a positive to come from this, it is the affirmation that the conservation work we do is important to our community.”

Thermostats within the exhibit were checked and aged or faulty ones were replaced. Zoo keepers are now able to check the systems on their cell phones, within each habitat, and make sure reptiles are safe, even if they’re not at work.

Zoo Knoxville also plans on making one big change, creating a new reptile exhibit in the center of the zoo to serve as an anchor to all exhibits.

“The hope is that around 2020 a new, really world class state of the art reptile facility and education center, would come online,” said New.

It’s a $12 million project, where they hope to begin construction sometime next year with about a two year completion date.

New says there’s a collection of about 400 reptiles and with a new facility, more will be showcased.

“I’m excited to see the exhibit back to its full capacity,” said Kellie Burnette.

Iconic snakes popular with visitors, including a forest cobra and albino Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and three critically endangered species, the Louisiana pine snake, Catalina Island rattlesnake and Aruba Island rattlesnake, were among the fatalities.

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