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Monday, May 22, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's a girl! ; Chai's baby will fit right in with easygoing all-female herd

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is the third in a series.

It's a girl!!!!

Third time was a charm for gender-test results of Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant, who is due to give birth this fall after a 22-month gestation.

"Everybody keeps asking, `Why aren't you more excited?' " said Pat Maluy, lead elephant keeper, upon hearing the news late last week. "I'm just hoping for a healthy baby. I don't care about the sex."

Keepers got no reaction from Chai, as was expected. But they still couldn't resist telling her.

After all, they've waited two months for blood tests to come back from Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where problems with a new machine delayed results.

Having a female calf makes life easier for the zoo, since females tend to be less trouble to handle. The baby can grow up within Woodland Park's existing herd of four females.

A male calf would have forced Woodland Park to speed up plans to build a separate bull facility. Males are larger and more aggressive. They get pushed out on their own in the wild by their teen years. In captivity, they've had to be separated from the herd as young as age 4.

Woodland Park first penciled in a bull facility in its 1976 long-range plans. With the heat off about Chai's calf, that plan now can be pushed to the second half of a new 20-year-plan.

Because of that, zoo officials breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that Chai's baby will be female. But Maluy said there was some disappointment among the keepers, who want to expand breeding.

There's a big push to breed the captive population because the elephants are aging. Meanwhile, their wild counterparts are disappearing along with natural habitat.

As participants in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan, Woodland Park will have to build a bull facility eventually. When it does, it might have room for two bulls, said Bruce Bohmke, general curator.

That way, the zoo could house a bull unrelated to its females and still have room if Chai has a bull calf her second time around. It's also possible Woodland Park's only other elephant of breeding age, Sri (pronounced "See") could get pregnant and potentially have a male.

Chai's blood samples were sent for gender-testing to Dickerson Park Zoo, the same place where Chai became pregnant 15 months ago after she traveled by truck to rendezvous with a sire named Onyx.

The test measures testosterone levels in the blood of the mother between the 39th and 60th week of pregnancy. A surge would have meant a boy.

Dickerson Park officials told Woodland Park's senior veterinarian, Dr. Janis Joslin, that they are 90 percent sure of the results.

Chai, at 21, is the equivalent age of a human in her 30s to 40s, curator Bohmke said. Just like in humans, first-time pregnancy is a little trickier for an older mom.

Since female calves tend to be smaller and easier to deliver, both Bohmke and Dr. Joslin see the "It's a girl!" announcement as very good news for Chai.

"The second calf squirts right out," said Dr. Joslin. "Her first should be a female and then we can worry about a male."

Sherry Stripling's e-mail address is: sstripling@seattletimes.com and message phone is 206-464-2520.

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

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