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Tuesday, September 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Films of elephant births that didn't go well have Woodland Park keepers concerned about their own mother-to-be

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is the sixth in an occasional series of articles following Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant. Although Chai is due in November, after an intensely watched 22-month gestation, she could give birth anytime now.

Pat Maluy, Woodland Park Zoo's lead elephant keeper, gathered his khaki-clad crew around him last spring to watch grainy black-and-white films of elephant births.

They were not all joyful events. In two films, the terrified mother attempted to kill her calf. One succeeded.

Retired keeper Tommy Wood, who is welcomed back with excitement by Woodland Park's herd every time he returns as a substitute, watched as an elephant cow in a film lifted one foot and then another against a wall, struggling with the pain of labor.

"Oh, I hope Chai has an easy time," said Wood, who was around when Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant, arrived from Thailand as a bouncing 1-year-old in 1980.

Along with the delight of watching Chai's progress, there's been an undercurrent of concern at the zoo.

The baby could be stillborn, deformed or diseased. Among North American zoo births, about 20 percent of calves are stillborn or live less than one day. An additional 25 percent of newborn elephants die before their first birthday, according to Maluy.

If there are problems with labor, it will not bode well for Chai. A few elephant mothers have undergone Caesarean sections to remove a dead calf, and none has survived.

One zoo took the risk of waiting for the dead calf to come out naturally. The mother survived - thanks to antibiotics, according to Mike Keele, deputy director at the Oregon Zoo. But that's a tough decision for zoos, he said.

Risks in the wild, too

Yet the risks of not having captive births are high, too.

Zoo populations are aging. It's extremely rare to get an animal from the wild these days. Fort Worth Zoo studies predict that fewer than 50 captive North American Asian elephants will have reproductive capabilities in less than 10 years. The numbers may be worse for Africa elephants.

The outlook is not much better in the wild.

Wild-ranging elephants in Asia have been on the endangered species list since 1976. The wild population in Africa is considered severely threatened.

Birth rates are not so much a problem in the wild as poaching and the destruction of natural habitat.

Meanwhile, zoos and circuses feel an urgency to get the genes of captive male and female elephants who have not yet reproduced represented in the gene pool.

Debbie Olson of the Indianapolis Zoo, the African elephant studbook keeper for the AZA, says captive-elephant breeding programs in North America are not yet self-sustaining.

"So far, in the year 2000, one male and four female African elephants have died," she said. "So far in the same year, only one male and one female African elephant has been born."

A new genetic line

Onyx, the Asian elephant Chai mated with, already has fathered six calves. He's well-represented in the gene pool. Now Chai, wild-born and a first-time mother, adds a whole new genetic line.

Onyx's unbiased keeper, Jeff Glazier, describes him as exceptionally handsome and intelligent. When Chai went to visit Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where the magic moment occurred 20 months ago, she was swept off her little feet by this great stud.

In addition to her fresh genes, Chai adds another valuable trait: unequaled good temperament.

That's paying off during the many months of pregnancy that have involved close watch by dozens of zoo professionals. For instance, the zoo is drawing blood from Chai so it can give her baby plasma with Chai's antibodies, should the baby initially refuse to nurse.

For this task, Chai must lie on her side for up to 30 minutes with a needle poked into an ear vein, the only penetrable place on her body. Her patience amazes the veterinary staff.

Because Chai is a first-time mother who has had little experience around calves, her keepers are unsure how she'll react to a newborn. The plan is to restrict her with loose leg chains during the birth. In the films where the mother panicked and attacked her baby, keepers saved the baby of the mother who was restricted.

(Chai routinely wears leg chains when she's bathed or undergoing other procedures inside the barn.)

"When things go wrong in an animal that size, it's just running on instinct," said Glazier of Dickerson Park. "It's `Katie bar the door.' If things go good, you can always drop the chains."

24-hour monitoring

Chai could go into labor anytime over the next 12 weeks. Once her progesterone levels drop, the zoo will begin a 24-hour watch through closed-circuit monitors. One keeper will sleep in a trailer behind the barn on call.

So far, Chai seems unconcerned. Always recognizable by her solid dark gray color and crooked tail, now she is distinguished by the expanding mammary glands visible between her front legs.

She is in such good physical condition, her keepers and the zoo veterinary staff say they have high hopes for a quick, easy delivery. After gaining 1,500 pounds since coming home from Missouri, she's leveled off at between 8,700 and 8,800.

That's a good sign. It's believed slimmer cows give birth to smaller babies, who slide out easier.

Chai continues to exercise, which should be in her favor, according to Olson of the Indianapolis Zoo. Labor for one recent birth there took only 90 minutes, and another 30. Both mothers were in top shape, Olson said.

Researching reproduction

Zoos didn't put much thought into reproduction until it became clear 25 years ago that they couldn't replenish their animals from the vanishing wild herds.

Now research expands in many directions. In addition to five animals being successfully bred by artificial insemination in the past two years, there is research to advance understanding of elephant foot disease, arthritis, tuberculosis and the herpes virus.

The herpes virus is important because it has been fatal to some calves.

Dickerson Park Zoo, which earlier lost a calf to what turned out to be herpes, later saved one with famciclovir, an antiviral medication used on people.

"Seattle is very aware of the symptoms and the signs of that disease and how quickly they'll have to act," said the Oregon Zoo's Keele, who oversees the Asian elephant studbook.

Keepers in Seattle had a chilling reminder of the dangers involved when the zoo's newest keeper, Don Bloomer, filmed a birth at another zoo. Before Bloomer had even made it home, the baby died of a heart defect.

The risks are high, but the rewards are great, Glazier says.

Baby elephants have a wonderful magnetism. They bring a natural social structure and dynamics to the captive herd, he said.

If it happens in Seattle how it happened in Springfield, visitors who barely glanced at the elephants before will slow down now to watch the calf.

It's hoped that witnessing these natural interactions will remind people of the need for elephant survival.

That's a lot to ask of a 200-pound baby. Woodland Park keepers hope Chai's offspring will be up to the task.

Sherry Stripling's e-mail address is: sstripling@seattletimes.com. Her message phone is 206-464-2520. For earlier stories in this series, visit The Seattle Times' Web site at www.seattletimes.com/news/lifestyles.

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

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