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Thursday, October 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stork hovers as volunteers watch Chai around the clock

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is the seventh in an occasional series of articles following Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant. For earlier articles in this series, please see our Web site at seattletimes.com/news/lifestyles.

Night stretches into dawn, one week becomes two, and still Woodland Park Zoo volunteers sit glued to video monitors, hoping they will be on duty the minute Chai goes into labor.

Bulge under tail.

Going down on hind knees.

Mammaries dripping fluid.

While keepers sleep - or try to - volunteers work through the night watching for any sign Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant is about to give birth.

(As of this writing yesterday, she had not, but her appetite had diminished - a rarity indeed for the 8,916-pound Chai.)

Instead of their dream of being the first to see the baby born, albeit by way of a video monitor, what the volunteers have dutifully logged since the all-night birth watch began Oct. 13 has been more like this:

"She's standing."

"Still standing."

"She's eating."

"Still eating."

But that apparently is good enough for them. Coordinator Kim Haas has only to pick up the phone and say, "Are you still available from midnight to 4 a.m. Tuesday?" to get the four two-person shifts filled each night. That's 56 volunteers a week.

"We couldn't do it without them," said Pat Maluy, Woodland Park's lead elephant keeper. "It would be impossible for the staff to get enough sleep and do their jobs during the day."

It is not just this birth or this zoo that will benefit. Half a dozen zoos, wildlife parks and circuses have pregnant elephants and some have already called Seattle to find out what the zoo is learning.

Some 75,000 volunteer hours were donated at Woodland Park last year. The zoo has such a rich supply of volunteers, the birth of Chai's baby should be one of the best documented.

Chai's birth watch, which was expected to last only a few days, began Oct. 13 when her progesterone levels dropped below 100, an indication that labor could begin within 72 hours.

It didn't begin. In fact, as late as this week, her progesterone level soared back up to 500 before dropping yesterday morning to 120.

Here is the importance of documentation. As rare as it is for progesterone levels to float that way, it has happened.

Quite a fluctuation

Maluy was reassured to learn a Fort Worth Zoo elephant went back up over 300 before dropping suddenly to zero three years ago.

The drop was so unexpected, the keeper on duty watched the elephant sleeping peacefully at 4 a.m. Two hours later, he awoke to find he'd missed the whole birth.

That shouldn't happen at Woodland Park because the volunteers beep the poor keeper assigned to sleep in a camper out back whenever anything unusual happens.

Even when nothing happens, it's still fascinating to watch Chai, volunteer Diana Stavig said.

Stavig, who is a volunteer keeper aide as well as a docent, hit volunteer ecstasy Oct. 8 when she was on birth watch with the gorillas.

That night, 9-year-old Alafia gave birth after a six-hour labor.

Stavig watched while Alafia followed the dictates of the wild and didn't utter a sound. To ease the discomfort, Alafia shook one hand every time she had a contraction, Stavig says.

Not as controlled

Her father was not as controlled. When Alafia held up her baby, Pete told the world about his new grandchild, Stavig reports.

The goal of the zoo is to have the elephants someday become as stable a troupe as the gorillas. Births should then become a natural family event.

In addition to the support of her parents, Nina and Pete, Alafia had her little niece, Nadiri, on hand as a witness, Stavig said.

"That's how they learn."

Other than 21-year-old Chai, Woodland Park has only one other elephant young enough to breed.

The hope is if Sri (pronounced See) witnesses the birth of Chai's baby, she won't be as alarmed should she give birth.

This has been a banner year for births of endangered or threatened species at Woodland Park Zoo. In addition to Alafia's baby, the stork brought a tapir; a second set of rare tamandua twins (lesser anteaters); three snow leopard cubs; two Humboldt penguins and an off-site hatching of New Zealand kea chicks.

Volunteers provide the extra hours that allow keepers more time for species conservation.

"It's a real team effort," Maluy said. "They are on the first line of documenting behavior."

In related news, Chai is the featured element on the zoo's Web site. Visit www.zoo.org to check it out.

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

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Help at the zoo

If you want to volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo, call Kim Haas, volunteer coordinator, at 206-684-4845. Or fill out an application on the zoo's Web site, www.zoo.org.

Volunteers first apply to become zoo ambassadors, which assist visitors. The next 4-session training begins after the first of the year.

After three months, you can apply to become a docent, which requires training three Saturdays a month for nearly half a year. Docents get involved in education, conservation and in helping out where needed with animals.

Docent training begins next fall.

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

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