- Lisa Lee
- Expectant mother Asha and her sister Chandra at the watering hole.
We all know Malee, the toddler-aged elephant who is the pride and joy of the Oklahoma City Zoo. Since her birth in 2011, she has been hailed as both a boon to our zoo and proof of its success as part of the elephant conservation program. Now, after a 22-month gestation period, the city awaits another joyful event: the arrival of Malees baby sibling.
Dr. Jennifer DAgostino has been the director of veterinary services at the zoo since 2008, during which time she has been involved in the discovery of Ashas first pregnancy and her first birth. She has learned a lot in through the process and even more in the meantime. She is ready for another adventure as Asha approaches her second big day.
Since all three adult elephants are part of a national conservation program, they are monitored closely throughout their lives. Asha; her sister, Chandra; and Rex are the subjects of regular tests to track their overall health. Three-year-old Malee is no stranger to the tests either, as she has been monitored closely since birth.
During the pregnancy, the specialists at Integris Bennett Fertility Institute have lent their valuable expertise to the process. This partnership started during Ashas pregnancy with Malee.
We knew we were going to need someone to do the daily progesterone levels, but we didnt have the funding to buy the equipment, DAgostino said. We have some friends at INTEGRIS, and I knew they had helped us in the past. When we asked, they said it was absolutely no problem.
The issue was not whether other labs in Oklahoma can do the tests but rather that they lack the sensitivity necessary to get the information needed. Samples from Asha are still sent to the Smithsonians National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. once a week. The Smithsonian lab keeps track of every elephant in the breeding program in the United States and keeps their important health and disease data on file. During pregnancy, they monitor Ashas hormone levels daily with information from the Bennett Institute and send a weeks worth of samples to the national lab. This way, they get immediate results from the lab at Integris and make sure they are on track with the Smithsonians information. These daily results are key to determining the date of birth. As progesterone levels fall to a baseline, birth is imminent.
Once those levels reach a baseline, we have approximately three to five days until the birth, and by that point, the entire elephant team everyone she knows will stay there 24 hours a day, DAgostino said.
There has also been training even re-training for everyone from the zookeepers to Asha herself for the birth. With the staff, its primarily what to do in such close proximity to a 3-4 ton animal and what to do if there is a minor emergency. With Asha, its mainly a refresher course, as it will be stressful and crowded. DAgostino is confident that she will remember much of the process from last time and expects an easy birth.
The doctor explained that a lot of the help that comes from the elephant team mimics what her herd would do in the wild.
Throughout the birth, the grandmother, the sisters, theyre all there, and then once the baby is born, the aunts and grandmas, they are cleaning the baby and getting it ready to meet mom. In the meantime, mom is off to the side, recuperating, DAgostino said.
In the future, the team hopes to have a large enough herd that the amount of people helping will be lessened and things will progress in a more natural way. As it is with all elephants in the program, the approximately 250-pound bundle of joy will be treated much the same as human babies cleaned, weighed, measured, toes counted and off to meet mom.
The team is already planning on Chandra getting pregnant, whether by natural means or with some help from fertility experts via in vitro fertilization as soon as she is in season again. Elephants go into season four times a year.
The zoo is expecting the new baby elephant soon.
Were ready any day now, but even the tests can only tell us so much, DAgostino said. But were prepared, and I know Asha is going to do great.
Owing to the cold weather, the public might not get to see the new family member outside in the yard for some time. This is ultimately up to mom and the keepers judgment about when the baby is ready to tackle the great outdoors.
- Rex, OKC Zoo's bull elephant and sire of Asha's new baby.
- Gillian Lang
- Chandra, Malee and Asha go for a stroll
Print: Before birth; The OKC Zoo prepares for a second elephant birth in four years