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Thursday, June 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Woodland Park elephant keepers are a little worried about the pounds the zoo's first pregnant pachyderm has packed on

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is the fourth installment of Chai's pregnancy journal. Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant is due to have a female calf in November after a 22-month gestation.

First comes Bamboo, Woodland Park Zoo's porker among elephants, to delicately put all four of her 15-inch-wide feet on the little wooden platform that serves as a scale.

"Steady 'Boo!"

"Ask her to hold her breath."

Don Bloomer, Woodland Park's keeper in training, shouts the results from a connected gauge: 9,118 pounds, down 12 from her weigh-in two weeks earlier.

"That means if she takes a drink of water, she gains it back again," says Pat Maluy, lead elephant keeper as he coaxes Bamboo back outside.

Now for the moment the keepers have been waiting for: Here comes Chai (rhymes with Shy), her mouth full of hay, an unfortunate indication of which way her weight is heading.

Chai has gained 1,500 pounds since coming home gaunt and pregnant last September from her Missouri tryst with the big bull Onyx. She needed to gain weight but not this much. Too many pounds could mean an oversized calf, which could lead to a difficult November birth.

"I'm hoping she'll plateau and stay at the same weight for the next five months," says Maluy (pronounced "Mail-You"). "But I haven't seen it yet. Every time I weigh her, she's gained another 40 or 50 pounds."

The numbers please: 8,840 pounds, up another 30.

"Oh, no!" comes the cry from observers.

The baby, the water and the placenta could weigh several hundred pounds at this point, Maluy says, but Chai is up 200 from her pre-pregnancy weight and she was considered "a roly-poly elephant then."

When she came home from Missouri, a traumatic journey even for easygoing Chai, she weighed 7,300 pounds. Her spine showed and there were hollows above her eyes, which made her look more like an elephant in the wild.

But if this has been a typical year, Chai has put away 29,200 pounds of hay and 3,650 pounds of grain combined with minerals and salt. And then there are her treats, 6,083 pounds of carrots, 364 pounds of apples and bananas.

Jenny Craig, where are you?

It's hard to put one elephant on a diet because Chai eats with the herd, which includes two other female Asian elephants, the portly Bamboo and Sri (pronounced See). The tusked African female Watoto is no help. She has always cast a maternal eye toward Chai and slips her extra treats.

Bloomer, the newest keeper, once cared for an Asian elephant that weighed more than 10,000 pounds. To keep occupied, she ate lots of lettuce, essentially "green water," said Bloomer. In two years, she lost 2,000 pounds. But Maluy isn't comfortable putting a pregnant elephant on a diet. Like everything involved in captive pregnancies and births, there's not enough hard-and-fast data. He would hate to have her miscarry and then wonder whether dieting triggered it.

It's not even certain that a heavy cow will produce too large of a calf for a successful labor, but anecdotal evidence points to it being true. And the keepers are always mindful that no mother elephant or calf has survived a C-section.

So instead of dieting, Chai is upping her exercise again. That means the five keepers are upping their exercise, too.

As of July 1, Chai will walk the 600-foot yard at a brisk pace for either three 20-minute sessions or two 30-minute stints. She's upping her abdominal work, too, increasing the number of times she's asked to lie down and get up to a minimum of eight a day.

It's a strenuous action to get 8,840 pounds off the ground. Other zoos tell Maluy that eventually Chai, who still isn't really showing, will get so round she won't want to do it. In the meantime, she does it willingly.

But what is her reward? More treats.

Sherry Stripling's e-mail is sstripling@seattletimes.com; her message phone is 206-464-2520.

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

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