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Sunday, March 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Chai's baby: In a captive elephant herd, a pregnancy is no small matter, for animals or keepers

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With two years of preparation and worry behind him - including a last month with only a few hours of sleep a night - lead keeper Pat Maluy picked up the phone in the elephant barn.

Maluy had controlled his emotions in front of his fellow keepers and in front of Chai, Woodland Park Zoo's first pregnant elephant, who was the object of all this concern.

But when he called Gigi Allianic, the zoo's public-relations director, on the morning of Nov. 2 last year, Maluy gave in.

"I think we're going to have a stillborn," he said, naming the fate of one in five captive elephant fetuses, which also can mean death for the mother. Then, he cried.

It would be a stretch to say Chai, a 21-year-old Asian elephant of remarkable good nature, could read Maluy's sense of impending doom for her calf. But she probably could detect his distress. Captive elephants eat, sleep, bathe and dump their food 10 times a day. Otherwise, they occupy themselves by monitoring moods in members of the herd - animal and human.

Woodland Park's all-female herd is of mixed species. With emotions built for the wild, the three Asian elephants and one African maneuver delicately in close confines. Keepers stay alert even when the hierarchy is stable. What pressure, they wondered, would a baby add?

No one understands these intricacies better than Maluy, a sturdy man whose last hold on rebellious youth is a slender braided "tail" stringing from the back of his head.

Maluy (pronounced mail-you) once worked 120 straight days and nights hand-raising a polar-bear cub. Since that was during his courtship, it came as no surprise to his wife when, 17 years later, Maluy's heart and mind were at Woodland Park for much of Chai's 22-month pregnancy.

The standing order to the zoo's five elephant keepers and one 72-year-old backup keeper was this: When the birth comes, no matter how people feel, the emotions they show Chai will be calm, cool and collected.

But night after night they waited, taking turns sleeping in a leaking camper while volunteers watched Chai's every move on a video screen. Chai's progesterone level dropped below 100 for good in late October, a clear indication that birth was imminent.

But birth didn't come.

As the days stretched to 7, 8, 9, the keepers and vet staff kept their fraying nerves hooked to 24-hour beepers. Emotions reached a peak of excitement, then plummeted.

Where was the baby? Why didn't she come?

The pregnancy had been such a long, arduous process.

For six years, the zoo tried artificial insemination, 50 times at $50 a pop. There is still a vial of the sperm floating around somewhere after it failed to get off a Greyhound. Like much of the aging captive population, Chai was running out of time to breed. Her genes were unrepresented: Her calf was vitally important.

At times, Maluy questioned whether a calf was worth what Chai must endure.

His lowest point was in September of 1998 during a grueling, 60-hour truck ride to Missouri, where Chai had a date with a bull. She stopped eating and drinking. As is his custom, Maluy feared the worst - Chai might die.

Her lowest moment may have come days later, when, according to witnesses, she was disciplined by Missouri keepers who wanted her to know she wasn't in Seattle now: She had to obey them.

"Day in and day out, year after year, you want to save them from undue stress and fear," Maluy later would say about the trip. "Then you get stuck in these situations where for the good of the species, the good of the zoo and the good of education, you don't have a lot of options."

The stakes are bigger than just Chai. Her species is at risk. There are fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants in the wild, fewer than 300 in North American zoos. Though reproduction has become high priority, successful captive births are so rare much remains unknown.

What few studies there are showed that Chai was not overdue on Nov. 2. Her exact due date was the next day, based on a 659-day gestation average. But other statistics were alarming. If Chai was not in labor nine days after her progesterone drop, her calf almost certainly was in trouble.

Maluy's supervisor, Helen Shewman, tried to reassure him that morning with this: "Those statistics come from very small samples."

And right behind those words came even greater relief in the form of Southwest Missouri State University's Dr. Dennis Schmitt, fresh off a red-eye flight.

Schmitt is the elephant world's equivalent of the all-knowing family doctor. Using an oversized ultrasound machine, he announced that the baby, whatever its condition, was coming into the birth canal. Chai was in early labor.

Then the down-home Schmitt reached in through Chai's rectum and brought out more news.

"Oh," said Schmitt, "we've got feet. Oh! It's alive."

"How do you know that!?!" Maluy demanded.

"Because it moved when I touched the toes. And she lifted both feet up."

Keeper Russ Roach was 8 feet away, patting and soothing Chai at her uptown end.

"What?" Roach asked. "What'd he say?"

"She has feet," Maluy repeated, gloom gone. "It's alive!"

The relationship between elephants and their keepers is different from any other in the zoo.

Elephants can live up to 60 years. They have an intelligence that ranks them near primates or dolphins and a complex social structure that slowly invites certain keepers into their herd.

Maluy, who moved to the elephant house in the mid '80s when Chai was about 6, says there's an added dynamic to working with elephants: Keepers have to outthink them.

"No offense to reptile keepers," he says.

Ask any of Woodland Park's keepers and the first reason they give for choosing elephants is intelligence. They say they sense devotion from the herd and they embarrass even their eccentric selves by using words like "affection" and "charm."

"That probably sounds pretty funny," says Chuck Harke, a shy, lean keeper who has a farmboy's ease with animals.

The most destructive of Woodland Park's four female elephants is Bamboo, who's so good at smashing windows with rocks, former Zoo Director David Towne considered letting her raze the old elephant house. Yet Bamboo melts at the sight of Harke, who plays with her like she's a dog.

Handling elephants is a balance of risk, love and control.

A keeper a year is killed in zoos or circuses, making the job more dangerous per capita than any other in North America, seven times higher than for cops.

Woodland Park, like half of all zoos, uses a system called "free contact," where keepers mingle with the elephants. Other zoos use "protected contact" where keepers are separated from the elephants by bars and chutes.

If they were in protected contact, Maluy still could pat Chai and keep up his mantra of "Good girl, Chai," as he scrubs her 15-inch feet with a white kitchen brush. But she'd have to learn to stick her foot through a fence.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association is pushing zoos toward protective contact for keeper safety. Animal-rights activists encourage it, too, because it means keepers don't have to establish dominance to maintain order.

Chai learned what that means the hard way after she arrived at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where she went for her encounter with Onyx, then a 33-year-old bull.

She knocked down a Dickerson Park keeper and was testy, Maluy reports. Had he been able to stay more than five days, he could have worked on that behavior over time.

But Chai had to learn quickly who was in charge and so she was disciplined, he says.

"She was in new surroundings and trying to figure out where she was in the social structure. Subsequent to that, she was fine with everyone."

Keepers struck her with the wooden ends of their elephant hooks for close to 30 minutes, according to someone who talked to a witness. Maluy said it went on only briefly and was nothing like one elephant would do to another in establishing dominance. "I've seen our elephants knock each other down, off all four feet, with one single blow," he says.

Since then People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claims a beating went on for 2 1/2 hours, has called for an official investigation.

Although Maluy is satisfied that Chai had the best possible care at Dickerson Park, the trip to Missouri was unquestionably hard on her.

She had no trouble with Onyx. In fact, they got along so well they engaged in rare recreational sex even when she was not in season.

But she lost more than a thousand pounds in 51 weeks, even though Woodland Park sent rich Northwest Timothy hay when Chai refused the dry Missouri straw.

"It's been an emotional ride," Maluy said six months after Chai's return. "She doesn't understand it and she probably never will."

A month before Chai was due, when her progesterone levels began wild swings up and down, substitute keeper Tom Wood, 72, moved his retirement RV behind the elephant barn.

No one had to tell the elephants.

"Yesterday," Maluy said, "I was bent over an elephant looking at a foot and I knew Tommy was here because Bamboo started rumbling, Watoto started rumbling, Sri started clucking and Chai squeaked."

The elephants pick up chemical clues. They read body language. They know when the crew is getting along and when it's not, says Maluy, who will not get himself into delicate situations with the herd if he's stressed or not feeling well.

Though they call them pachyderms, which means thick skinned, elephants are anything but when it comes to herd dynamics.

Wood, a former civil-rights worker who resembles a thin Colonel Sanders, white goatee and all, opened the crate when Chai arrived as a 1-year-old from Thailand in 1980.

He always wanted to breed Chai and Sri, her best friend, who came a year later, also as a 1-year-old but without Chai's calm temperament.

"We would be hard-pressed to try to justify keeping two young animals from Southeast Asia just to look at," Wood says in his soft Virginia tones.

But reproduction was low priority in the days when it seemed there would be an endless supply of replenishments from the wild. And few circuses or zoos kept bull elephants, who go on rampages several times a year in "musth," a crazing testosterone surge that gives them the nerve to challenge older bulls.

Zoos that breed today must be willing to build separate bull facilities to accommodate a maturing male calf.

Though most captive elephants live in all-female herds, as they would in the wild, they don't have the same social structure of "allo-mothers" or "aunties" to help raise the young. Most have never seen babies.

Yet maternal instincts were there 20 years ago for Watoto, 32, Woodland Park's dominant matriarch, who fell instantly in love with the then-toddling Chai. She shares food with her as she would a daughter.

Today, Chai is third in herd hierarchy, but she enjoys special status because of Watoto's protection - something denied the fearful Sri (pronounced see).

Woodland Park's hierarchy is especially complex. The bulky Bamboo, 34, is No. 2. Though Bamboo has the age and personality to be dominant, Watoto maintains that role with ease. As the zoo's only African elephant, she has tusks, which Bamboo tries to avoid by sniffing Watoto's urine for mood clues.

Those were the dynamics before the birth. How would they change with a baby added?

Would Watoto take to Chai's baby the way she did to Chai? Would being a mother lift Chai a notch in the hierarchy?

Would the high-strung Sri come unglued?

Captive elephant cows who do not give birth before age 25 likely will not give birth at all. But once they've successfully bred, they can have a calf every four years.

Sri, at 21, is the only other elephant at Woodland Park young enough to give birth. Keepers dreaded sending her to be bred, most likely in Portland, where a Seattle keeper could stay with her.

But if she were to do well with Chai's baby, they thought, it might be worth the strain.

Zoo elephants are the couch potatoes of the elephant world. That's why circuses have better reproductive success, Missouri's Schmitt believes. Their animals are physically and socially fitter, oft exposed to change.

For a year after coming home from Dickerson Park, Chai's keepers walked her up and down the berm in the elephant yard for 30 minutes twice a day. To strengthen her abdominal muscles, she'd lie down, get up, lifting her own 8,800 pounds.

So many things can go wrong.

Because of their anatomy and size, no elephant mother has survived a Caesarian section.

Not only are one-fifth of calves stillborn, another 25 percent of zoo-born babies die in their first year. Woodland Park's staff watched films of inexperienced mothers killing their new-born calves.

After all that worry, Schmitt's news on Nov. 2 that Chai's fetus was still alive hit the exhausted keepers like a jolt of caffeine.

"I'm sorry," Maluy told Allianic that day at the barn, hopes renewed. "I didn't mean to sound so gloomy."

Chai was secured by loose chains in the main hall of the elephant barn, where the herd usually gets daily baths.

Watoto had a clear view through the wide entrance of her stall. Meanwhile, Sri, already distressed to see medical equipment, peered through partially opened doors.

The last watch began.

At mid-day Nov. 2, vet associate Dr. Darin Collins got the honor of sticking his arm up Chai's rectum. Every two hours, he'd measure again, with his arm going in one inch less, a sign the baby was moving forward.

But at 1 a.m., she moved back.

With night covering the barn windows in the mock Thai Royal Elephant House, the keepers and vets conferred. It was time to induce labor.

At 3:52 a.m., oxytocin was injected into Chai's leg muscle. That should have started something but it didn't. Stoic old Chai lifted her tail slightly but showed no sign of hard labor.

At 4:26 a.m., she was given a second dose, this time intravenously. The fun began.

Roach stood at her head, telling her what a good girl she was. Wood and Maluy flanked her rear. As new keeper Don Bloomer video-taped the action, Harke and veteran Ken Morgan crouched ready to pull the calf away the minute it was born.

Out she came with a swoosh, a gray, naked body that bounced on the floor. The crew pulled her away wordlessly, although the excited Watoto had her share of announcements.

Dr. Janis Joslin, senior veterinarian, cleared the baby's mouth and patted her into life. As Maluy pulled away the amniotic sack, watching the fluid rush down a drain, his thoughts took strange turns.

"Everybody had always talked about how slippery it would be," he said later. "Here's this baby, this miracle, and my first stupid thought is, 'This isn't slippery at all! What were they talking about?' "

Twenty feet away, Chai was curious but not overly concerned. Maluy imagined her thoughts to be "What the heck is that?"

Chai may not have bonded yet, but the baby knew what she wanted. She could smell her mother's milk.

Within 15 minutes, the baby struggled to her feet while the vet crew hurried to finish a checklist of her health. Since babies don't come with handles and a falling baby would alarm Chai, Morgan slipped a nylon strap under her belly so the keepers could crab walk her toward Chai.

"Who's that, Chai?" Maluy asked in a sing-song voice that later would make him cringe when he watched birth videos. "That's your baby!"

She was 235 pounds, a perfect baby, though her gray wrinkled skin was several sizes too big. Someday she will sound like a scuba diver when she breathes through a 400-pound trunk that will be dexterous enough to pick up a grain of rice. For now, it flopped.

Her intent, as it would be for months ahead, was to get under Chai, the safest place in her new world. The keepers had other ideas. They wanted wide-eyed Chai to get a good look at her first.

But already they had trouble steering her where they wanted her to go.

Every time the baby and two disheveled keepers wobbled by Chai, she'd reach out and smell different parts of the baby's body. She was interested but not aggressive, nervous but not fearful.

All the months of speculation, phone calls to other zoos, films watched of other births, and when it came to real life, Woodland Park's first elephant birth went off without a hitch.

"It was amazing, just totally amazing," Maluy said. "We knew exactly what was happening. We knew if we were fearful or tense Chai would pick it up. It was overwhelming."

Chai's baby has become a world star.

She's been on ABC, NBC, CBS, the BBC and in The New York Times.

There were three Asian elephant babies born last year at North American zoos, but one died with a heart defect. Though Chai's baby has raised awareness for hundreds of thousands of people, her kind didn't gain ground: Three zoo adults died last year.

Time is running out.

A study at the Fort Worth Zoo predicts that if new, imported elephants aren't added to the gene pool, the captive population will lose its ability to reproduce in 10 years, be gone in 50. And the picture isn't much brighter in the wild with deforestation, war and an Asian population expected to double in 30 years.

"The pessimistic side of me says that we will probably never keep them from dying off," Maluy says.

Chai's baby is doing her part to let the world know why elephants are worth saving.

There were two-hour waits to see her in Seattle her first weeks. Woodland Park doubled attendance the first two months and was up 60 percent in January.

Unless she's asleep, the baby never fails to satisfy.

She was up and running by late in the evening Nov. 3, smashing into Chai because she didn't know how to put on the brakes. Chai was restrained for the first two days but quickly showed herself to be an able and patient mother.

"All these natural instincts are turned on in her that weren't there before," Roach says.

Relationships with the keepers developed fast.

Harke looked like he'd been in a windstorm because the baby ruffled his hair and wrapped her trunk around his neck. She nearly upended Roach as she rushed her little bristle-brush body between his legs.

By the second week, the keepers were sure she knew them as individuals.

"Right now she's just being a baby and I'm just really enjoying it," said Wood, who calls the birth the crown of his career.

So far, the birth has not been a life highlight for Bamboo and Sri. It has changed herd dynamics but not because Chai moved up in the hierarchy.

As was hoped, Watoto's sensitive heart soared.

Almost right away, the baby left her mother for long stints and slept next to Watoto's stall. That allowed the big African elephant to explore the baby with her trunk.

The physical introduction with Watoto began soon after the baby was solidly on her feet.

As Maluy stood in the yard with a double-chained Watoto, Chai waddled out, unable to move with any speed because the baby was between her legs.

By the time they neared Watoto, Maluy felt the African elephant straining with excitement. "Take them back!" he ordered and Chai's little group did a waddling about face.

Two weeks after the birth, Watoto was able to be in the barn, unrestrained, with Chai and the baby, though she was not as patient as Chai.

"She will correct the baby when necessary," Maluy reported in late January. "It's not with the force to injure the baby, but enough to let the baby know, 'Hey, she means business, she must be in charge.' "

Sri and Bamboo spent the winter isolated from the three others, often inside and bored. Until they can be trusted with the baby - probably when the baby is significantly bigger - Woodland Park will have two herds.

Sri has been curious about the baby and will touch and sniff her from the other side of a hot wire. She and the baby play an odd game, Morgan reports, with the baby putting her trunk on the ground and Sri trapping it with her trunk. The baby pulls out her trunk, then they do it again.

But Sri has also knocked the baby flying across the yard.

Neither Sri nor Bamboo like it when the baby runs or tries to get under them. In his 17 years with the elephants, Morgan says he's never seen such a clearly instinctual behavior as the baby's desire to get under any adult when something scares her.

For a variety of reasons, Sri's trip to see a bull is not coming up soon.

First, the zoo must deal with moving toward protected contact. Officials may meet with a consultant this month, Maluy reports. It's been a goal at the zoo for years, according to general curator Bruce Bohmke. The move likely will be sped up because of the concern raised by Chai's discipline at Dickerson Park.

For their part, the keepers mourn the potential loss of their physical relationship with the elephants.

They walk a very fine line with the baby. How do they keep her trusting but also under control?

She started out weighing more than they do. At three months, she was close to 500 pounds and had three speeds, all fast, including fast asleep.

As the baby awaits the results of a naming contest March 26, she's heard the word "No!" so often, Roach wonders if she thinks that's her name.

She is already wearing a light chain on one foot. As she gets interested in solid food, she'll get short stints of being restrained, probably as she stands next to her mother to eat.

With luck, she has 50 years ahead of her and several calves of her own. Deputy director Mike Waller jokes that the zoo was so sure she'd be gifted, they put a placeholder in for her at the prestigious Lakeside School.

Maluy is less ambitious, though he is optimistic for the first time in this process.

"All we want is for her to be happy and well-adjusted and well-trained. If it turns out she has a temperament similar to Chai's, it will be a godsend."

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