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Saturday, November 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A very, very big bundle of joy

Seattle Times staff reporter

The public may have to wait until Monday to get a glimpse of Woodland Park Zoo's first baby elephant, a 235-pound female calf pronounced perfectly healthy at birth.

Zoo officials say the calf, born at 4:48 a.m. yesterday, needs time to bond with her mother, Chai (rhymes with shy).

But by the looks of a videotape of the birth, available on the Web, that shouldn't take long.

"Who's that, Chai?" lead keeper Pat Maluy can be heard asking while Chai's trunk reaches toward her newborn. "That's your baby."

To find out when the exhibit will be open, call the zoo's hotline at 206-684-4800. Expect to see a wobbling baby in oversized wrinkly skin. The baby will remain nameless until Woodland Park holds a contest this spring.

The Asian elephant birth is significant not only to Woodland Park but worldwide. There are fewer than 300 of the endangered species in North American zoos. A Fort Worth Zoo study estimates that in 10 years there will be just 50 captive Asian elephants still young enough to breed.

Woodland Park Zoo tried to artificially inseminate Chai for six years before sending her to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., in September of 1998 for an encounter with a 36-year-old bull named Onyx.

By late afternoon yesterday, Chai was using her trunk to explore her fuzzy baby. Meanwhile, the baby poked and probed her as she attempted to nurse.

At 37 inches tall, the baby has trouble reaching her long-legged mother to feed. But she's learning to use a little platform built by the zoo for a boost.

Chai, who hasn't spent much time around elephant babies, showed encouraging signs yesterday of being protective of her calf, growing concerned whenever the baby wandered too far.

Keepers had been especially curious about how the other elephants would react. Bamboo, 33; Watoto, 30; and Sri, 20, kept up low rumbles while they watched Chai's labor from nearby. Later, they touched the calf with their trunks when keepers walked her near their enclosures, though the high-strung Sri pulled back as if she'd touched a snake.

By yesterday afternoon, Woodland Park's five elephant keepers were going on their second day with little or no sleep. Though they were about to take turns on a 24-hour watch, those off duty seemed unable to make themselves go home.

"I'm sure they didn't pay this much attention to their wives' pregnancies," said Janis Joslin, senior veterinarian, who also was without sleep.

The baby's trunk is 10 inches long and her tail is 16 1/2 inches long, proportions that will soon reverse. At 235 pounds, her weight is considered good, since Asian elephant babies average 200 to 250.

Zoo officials say they will remain cautious about the baby's health for the next 30 days. About 20 percent of captive-elephant births are stillborn and another 25 percent of calves do not live through their first year.

But surviving her first 24 hours is a big milestone, zoo officials said.

Though most of Chai's 22-month pregnancy was without incident, she had her keepers on edge in recent weeks.

Her progesterone levels indicated labor was near weeks ago but then her levels varied wildly.

Finally, after getting conflicting reports about what that might mean, Woodland Park flew in Dr. Dennis Schmitt, a world-renowned expert in elephant reproduction, on Thursday.

Schmitt gave Chai an ultrasound and had good news. The baby was in position for birth.

Over the next few hours, the baby moved a few more inches forward but then stopped at 2 a.m. Joslin said Chai seemed to restrain herself during contractions.

The vets induced active labor. Finally, with Chai's contractions only 48 seconds apart, the baby slid out onto the heated floor.

On the videotape shown yesterday, the next few minutes of action are almost wordless.

The baby was pulled briefly from underneath Chai, who was restrained by leg chains. (The chains were a precaution since first-time captive mothers, often unfamiliar with babies, sometimes panic and kill their calves.)

With keepers and veterinary staff members wiping the baby with towels, Joslin cleared the baby's passages and alternately rubbed and tapped its cheeks.

Almost immediately, the sturdy calf attempted to stand.

It was drawn by the smell of milk, Joslin said. Eventually, with keepers providing support, the baby staggered toward Chai, who had already reached for the baby with her trunk.

In the next few days, the keepers will watch to make sure the baby's bond with her mother is strong and slowly increase her exposure to the rest of the herd.

Right away it was clear the baby has an unusually coordinated little trunk, according to Joslin.

And that's not even the zoo's first brag.

Just minutes after the baby's birth, a voice on the videotape can be heard whispering, "She's beautiful."

To see video clips of the baby's birth, visit the zoo's Web site at www.zoo.org. To read entries in Chai's pregnancy diaries, which have run throughout the year in The Seattle Times, go to seattletimes.com/news/lifestyles.

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

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