by Mary Delach Leonard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 2, 2005

The elephant mother-to-be stretches.

And sits.

And raises one foot.

And then raises the other foot.

And opens her mouth to catch a hunk of apple when her keeper says "Ahhhh."

It’s a prenatal workout for Sri, who is 19 months pregnant, taking place on a mild summer morning in a private yard behind the Elephant House at the St. Louis Zoo. The expectant mom seems to be taking the session pretty well, pausing once in a while to dust herself off with a trunkful of dirt.

"What they’re trying to do is limber her up and get her into shape so when she goes into labor, she’ll be in good condition," said Martha Fischer, curator of mammals and ungulates, as she watched Sri (pronounced "see") putting her keepers through their paces.

What Fischer knows — and Sri probably doesn’t — is that labor can be a rigorous ordeal, and confusing, too, particularly for a first-time mother the size of an Asian elephant.

The Zoo staff has been busy preparing the 7,000-pound Sri for her baby’s birth, which could happen as early as mid-September, when the staff will go on 24-hour call, and as late as mid-December. The actual due date is expected to be somewhere around Nov. 1. Although elephant gestation averages 22 months, or 659 days, it can range from 612 to 699 days.

The exercise program — think elephant pilates — is designed not only to strengthen Sri’s abdominal muscles, but also to allow her keepers to observe her physical condition and to strengthen their bond with her.

"She’s in really good shape," Fischer said.

For one thing, Sri has not been eating for two. The elephant’s diet has been carefully monitored by nutritionists to keep her from gaining an excessive amount of weight, Fischer said. Sri has gained about 500 pounds; elephant newborns usually weigh between 250 and 350 pounds.

Although the 25-year-old Sri is wearing her pregnancy well, it is becoming more obvious, particularly when she is in a sitting position.

"She’s very voluptuous," Fischer said.

Preparing for labor days

Staffers and visitors alike are abuzz over the pending birth of a baby elephant fathered by Raja — a St. Louis favorite since his birth at the Zoo in December 1992.

The Zoo is sponsoring Elephant Labor Days Saturday through Monday, with docents and staff vets available to answer questions from a curious public about both Sri and Ellie, who is also pregnant by the studly Raja and expected to deliver next July.

"Everybody’s excited because Raja’s the father, but they can’t believe it because they all say, ‘But he was just born,’ " said elephant keeper Shelly Wagner, who has been working with Sri since she arrived on long-term loan from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in July 2002.

The goal is to keep Sri’s routine as normal as possible. She still hangs out with the elephant herd and can be observed most days in the outdoor yard at River’s Edge, where many visitors mistake the more portly Donna for Sri.

"She’s not sick. She doesn’t need to be isolated or protected. She’s just pregnant," Fischer explained.

Sri has grown accustomed to blood tests, which have not only indicated that her calf is female but will also provide a good indicator of the onset of labor. When Sri’s progesterone level drops, labor will be imminent.

In the meantime, the elephant yards have all been "baby-proofed" to keep a little Raja-ette from slipping through small openings. Staffers have been watching films of elephant births at other zoos and a national team of experts has been assembled to offer advice and assistance. Beginning Oct. 1, a team of volunteers will help staffers review overnight video surveillance of Sri, looking for behavior changes that might indicate labor.

"Our role is to help her stay calm, then it’s up to her and Mother Nature," Fischer said.

Dear old dad

The Zoo has been planning for Raja’s courtships since he arrived on the scene nearly 13 years ago. The bull’s birth to Pearl, who still lives at the Zoo, was the impetus for construction of the $27 million River’s Edge facility, which not only offered improved viewing areas for the public but secure breeding facilities. The match-making of Raja with Sri and Ellie, who is on loan from the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, was arranged under the auspices of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Elephant Species Survival Plan.

For longtime staffers such as Fischer, who worked at the Zoo during Raja’s birth, this is an understandably exciting time, but she also remembers that there were trying moments back then. Pearl wouldn’t let Raja nurse for several days, Fischer pointed out. Sri has been trained to accept a breast milk pump, should she not accept her calf right away.

"For first-time mothers, the risks are higher," acknowledged Fischer. "But we really are optimistic that she’ll have a healthy baby girl, and that they’ll bond and it will all go perfectly. But we also have to plan for anything that might go wrong. We like to say that we are cautiously optimistic."

Fischer adds that even the birth of Raja’s baby won’t upstage dear old dad, who still gets a birthday celebration at the Zoo every December.

"Raja will always have a birthday party," Fischer said.

What: Elephant Labor Days

Where: St. Louis Zoo

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday through Monday

What: Activities will focus on expectant elephant moms Sri and Ellie, with staffers available to answer questions. There will be activities for kids, plus chats with keepers and veterinarians.

How much: Free

Information: 314-781-0900 or www.stlzoo.org

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com