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Tuesday, August 15, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How do you baby-proof for a 200-pound baby? BY:Sherry Stripling

Seattle Times staff reporter

Chai's pregnancy diary

This is the fifth in an occasional series of articles following Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant. Though much could still go wrong - captive elephant pregnancies and births remain risky business - Chai is due to give birth to a female calf in November. The zoo is keeping close watch on her - and, judging by the amount of time keepers spend answering visitors' questions, so is much of the Northwest. For earlier stories in this series, please visit The Seattle Times' Web site at www.seattletimes.com/news/lifestyles.

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When the five keepers at Woodland Park Zoo gave exhibits technician Greg Federighi their suggested list of ways to "baby proof" the elephant compound, it scared him.

The list went on for eight pages and included closing off all the "nooks and crannies" that could trap a curious 200-pound baby. The problem is those crannies were also keeper escapes, little openings keepers can step into quickly to avoid getting crushed.

"Every little place I'm closing, I'm cutting off your escape," Federighi told the keepers, who didn't need to be reminded that the high number of elephant-handler deaths puts the job near the top of dangerous U.S. professions.

But every parent makes sacrifices, and the keepers who will guide Chai's parenting of her baby, due in November, are willing to make theirs to keep Woodland Park Zoo's first baby elephant safe.

Even without yard accidents, there are enough things that can go wrong. Nearly a third of captive elephant babies die in the first year for various reasons, including deformity, viruses and herds that have no experience with vulnerable junior versions of themselves.

The Elephant Forest was state-of-the art when it was completed in 1989. But it was built for the zoo's four adults, all 8,000 pounds or more, not for something so tiny it will walk underneath them.

So that's what the keepers had to picture this summer as they combed the exhibit looking for possible hazards.

The process is much like baby-proofing a house for the first time, said veteran keeper Ken Morgan. You have to move the Drano from under the sink and think, "Will this little person stick a hairpin in an electric socket?"

An elephant toddler, playful and likely very intelligent, is just like any other youngster.

"Every nook and cranny where it's not supposed to go is where it's going to go," Morgan said.

In July, Federighi led the baby-proofing of the south paddock. The elephants moved there temporarily so workers this month could do long-needed maintenance and baby-proof the north pasture and barn.

Though Chai is due in November, the baby could come six weeks sooner (or later), which adds urgency.

Since the baby and Chai will at first be separated from the other elephants, keepers will have to open a new passageway in the barn, along the east side.

But there are windows there that will have to be blocked off. The baby will be like a bird, the keepers say, seeing the window only as open passage and not as glass.

In the north yard, a rock created out of a concrete-like material that blocks a route to Aurora Avenue has to be made even bigger to lessen the risks.

"We don't want our baby playing in the street," Federighi said.

But as much as all are concerned for the baby's safety, Federighi, the zoo's metal fabricator, just couldn't bring himself to accept the keepers' safety sacrifices, at least not entirely. He racked his brain to think of compromises.

Woodland Park's records show no keeper deaths, but a keeper was knocked down and injured in the 1980s by the temperamental Asian elephant Bamboo.

Some zoos have limited or "protected" contact, meaning bars and barriers come between keepers and the animals. But Woodland Park's keepers trade the risk of being in with their elephants for the mutual reward of free contact.

Federighi has watched the benefit of that touch in the weeks he's worked in the elephant yard. To him, it's clear: "The keepers really do care about these elephants."

But look at this fence, he said, pointing out what used to be three and now, because of the baby, are four wire ropes between huge fence posts. If a keeper were pushed back into that, the fence would act as a big cheese slicer.

At the end of each fence, by design, there has always been an opening just big enough for a keeper (and now a baby) to slip through.

The keepers aren't as worried the baby will get away as they are she'll get stuck. If that happens, Chai might panic.

Then the keepers would panic because Chai would be "9,000 pounds of crazed," Federighi said.

So instead of blocking off the opening with wires straight across, Federighi changed the design to bring the extra wires behind the fence post. That leaves a human-body-width of space, just enough for a keeper to duck into.

He did the same thing in the barn. But instead of running chains a foot behind the big upright bollards that keep the elephants contained, he made the chains "sloppy." That way, they'll give, providing just the inches an escaping keeper needs to stay safe.

Bamboo remains so cantankerous that the newest keeper, Don Bloomer, predicts it will be years before she lets him near her. His hope is that he'll someday earn the same loyalty she shows other keepers, particularly Chuck Harke.

But even with good relationships, it's dangerous being around creatures of such size.

"Really, the situations I've watched," Federighi said. "If the elephant just steps back . . . You gotta know where you are at all times.

" `OK, am I going to be able to get out?' " Before it wasn't a problem."

A slimmer Chai

In other news, Chai's exercise program has paid off. She'd lost 88 pounds at her last weighing.

Though Morgan points out that Chai could lose 50 pounds simply by processing her morning hay before stepping on the scale, it's still good news that she's headed down.

She's routinely gained 30 to 40 pounds every couple of weeks - 1,500 in all since she came home pregnant 19 months ago. Keepers worried that it meant the calf was getting too big for a safe birth.

Chai, recognizable by her crooked tail, appears to be in excellent health.

"There are no red flags," Morgan said.

She continues to power-walk 30 minutes twice a day with her keepers. She dutifully lies down and gets up 10 times a day to build her abdominal strength, a routine that tries even her sweet disposition.

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

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

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