Getting Ready for Baby (elephant, that is!)
It seems like only yesterday when Raja, our male Asian Elephant, was born. Raja was the first elephant ever born at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Raja is now a father of three and expecting his fourth baby in spring 2013. Daughters Maliha (born to Ellie on August 2, 2006), Jade (born to Rani on February 25, 2007) and Kenzi (born to Rani on June 24, 2011) are part of the Raja’s three-generation family herd. Another daughter is expected in spring 2013 when Ellie is due to give birth.
Sri, a 26-year-old elephant, had been expected to deliver in November 2005. The Zoo was saddened to announce that complications in Sri's pregnancy have led to the death of her calf in utero. Sri’s demeanor and attitude remain normal. She’s eating well and currently living with her herdmates in River’s Edge.
The birth of an elephant in human care is still a relatively rare event. Every expectant mother—whether elephant or human—needs good health care before giving birth, to safeguard the health of mother and baby. That’s definitely the case with our Zoo’s expectant elephant cows, who receive the best in prenatal care throughout their 22-month pregnancies.
This care really begins with our every day high standards of care. Our keepers work with the elephants daily, training them to voluntarily participate in their care routine. The animals learn common procedures (like lifting their foot near a "poot panel" so their keepers can perform daily foot care). The elephants are also trained to cooperate with regular veterinary procedures (having blood drawn, for instance) as well as less frequent ones (such as having an ultrasound).
One sure-fire way to know if an elephant is pregnant if by tracking her hormone levels. As with humans, female elephants' reproductive hormones go up and down. The Zoo's Endocrinology Lab tracks our female elephants' hormone levels every week, even before they mate with our male, Raja. (These tests—known as progesterone assays—allow us to follow the cycles of the females, to precisely determine the best time to allow them to breed. All that’s left is to introduce the female to Raja for a period of time every day. Then elephant instincts do the rest!)
After confirming the pregnancies, the Zoo's staff began monitoring each cow's weight very carefully. We do not want the mothers to gain a lot of extra weight during pregnancy or the calf to be too big at birth. A baby elephant can weigh 250-350 pounds!
As part of the weight control effort, our staff also started our expectant mothers on an accelerated fitness program. Not only can exercise help manage the cows' weight gain, but it also builds good muscle tone that will help them during delivery.
One last important part of our pre-natal care package is making sure the pregnant moms were well nourished with healthy eating habits.
Birth support group
Rani has a "support group" with all of the female elephants in the herd. They are there for Rani during and after the birth, the same way females behave in a wild elephant herd.
We assigned two keepers to act as delivery coaches, with veterinarians standing by if necessary. We also assembled equipment and supplies that come in handy during delivery. Things like towels, lubricants, and ultrasound machines are familiar even to human obstetricians.