Sunday, March 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A BIG bundle of joy

Seattle Times staff reporter

Good thing sweet Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant, isn't keeping her own pregnancy journal or it might go something like this:

"Dear Diary,

"I met a bull built like an armored tank last night. The earth moved, but that happens every time we walk."

Instead, we're taking notes for Chai (rhymes with Shy), who's in the 14th month of her 22-month gestation. She's expecting a 200-pound bundle of joy this fall.

Scene will run Chai's Pregnancy Diary periodically to show her routine, the keepers' excitement, the state of the species and the risk - which, unfortunately, is high. Next installment: Results of the gender test.

Right now Chai is power-walking 15 minutes twice a day (don't tell her, but it goes up to 20 minutes on Saturday). She's also doing step-ups, leg lifts and other exercises to build up her abdominal muscles.

"All the keepers are wearing little sweatbands on their heads and wrists," says lead keeper Pat Maluy (pronounced Mail-You), tongue in cheek.

The goal is to keep Chai's weight and the baby's weight down to increase the odds of a successful birth.

The healthy, easygoing Chai, 20, should do fine, but an oversized fetus could force a Caesarean section. So far, no elephant has survived one.

About a third of captive-elephant pregnancies end without a live birth. Another third of the surviving calves don't reach their first birthdays. Infection and malformation are factors, and so is maternal inexperience.

Animal managers were slow to begin studying elephant reproduction. They assumed there'd always be wild replenishments. But with elephant populations in Africa and Asia diminishing, that's no longer true.

Meanwhile, the captive North American elephant population is graying, so to speak.

But things are looking up. After years of frustration, there's been an elephant baby boomlet in the past year, including the world's first artificially inseminated Asian- and African-elephant births (the latter just weeks ago).

Our girl Chai did it the old-fashioned way.

Woodland Park has four elephants, all female. Three, like Chai, are Asian, and the fourth, Watoto, is African. (She's bigger and gets to dominate because female African elephants have tusks.)

Only Chai and her best buddy, Sri (pronounced See), 19, remain in their reproductive prime.

For six years, Chai's four keepers took turns racing to the Greyhound station or Sea-Tac Airport to pick up bull sperm for artificial insemination. There's still a vial that missed the stop floating around somewhere.

But all this effort was for naught. Unbeknownst to anybody, the sperm preservative damaged the little sperm head. It wiggled fine but couldn't produce the egg-softening enzyme that allowed it to penetrate.

Good ol' Chai never lost patience with the procedure, but it was an ordeal for the high-strung Sri, who turns into the cowardly lion any time she sees anything veterinarian-like coming toward her.

In fall 1998, the zoo spent $50,000 for travel and stud fees to send Chai to the innovative Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo.

With Maluy, Chai traveled three days in a crate on a flatbed truck. Alas, she went into her estrous cycle en route.

But Chai didn't let a little thing like that get in her way! Even as a cloistered female who didn't know male elephants existed, Chai's jungle blood heated quickly. One look at the bull, Onyx, a 36-year-old father of six surviving calves, and Chai knew what to do.

She sidled up to him and presented herself. Dickerson officials were astonished. Onyx had never mated with a female not in cycle. Recreational sex? Who did they think they were, orangutans?

Then they did it some more when she was in cycle in January of 1999.

In the wild and in captivity, adult males are so aggressive that they live apart from females after they reach their teens. But Chai gets along with every living thing. She hung out for weeks with Onyx, apparently quite content.

At last, safely beginning her second trimester last September, Chai came home, again by flatbed truck.

Watoto, who lives with her emotions on her sleeves, flapped her huge ears and trumpeted. Bamboo and Sri rumbled a welcome too low to be heard by human ears, keepers said.

Elephants are highly reliant on chemical signals. They know something's different about Chai, Maluy said, but they don't know she's pregnant. In the wild, aunties and moms traditionally raise babies together. These elephants have never had an infant among them.

Now the question is: Will it be a boy or a girl?

Woodland Park's animal-health workers will know in the next month. They sent blood samples to Dickerson Park Zoo. Researchers there have developed a patented test to detect testosterone surges in the mother's blood.

If Chai shows a surge in her 55th week, she'll have a male calf. That news would bring panic to Woodland Park.

A female will make life more crowded, but she can stay with the herd. A male will have to be shipped off when he reaches his unruly teens.

"But Russ is hoping for a boy," Maluy said.

Keeper Russ Roach is willing to put into words what others around the zoo might dream about but hate to say.

"If we had a male, 15 years from now, we'd have people coming to us to breed our bull," Roach said.

And if Chai's pal Sri gets pregnant by a different bull next year and gives birth to a male, Woodland Park could become a hothouse for elephant breeding.

A separate bull facility is way down the list in the zoo's long-range plans. But Chai's offspring could move it up.

Meantime, Chai seems to be enjoying her pregnancy. Her mammary glands are becoming more obvious. To the untrained observer, she has a beautiful glow.

She's getting more attention, more treats. And she's huffing and puffing less as she cruises the yard with Maluy by her side, popping carrots in her mouth and talking nonstop.

"Hurry, Chai. Keep up, Chai. Good girl."

If all goes well, eight months remain until the thunderous pitter patter of little footsteps.

Sherry Stripling can be reached at 206-464-2520. Her e-mail address is

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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