By Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 3, 2006

The cursing, the panting, the frantic plea for drugs - most pregnant women could not disguise labor if they tried. And why would they want to? Misery, as they say, loves company.

Not so in the wild. An animal in labor is vulnerable to attack, so they tend not to make a scene before giving birth. Ellie, an Asian elephant at the St. Louis Zoo, did a better job than most. While some elephants reject food or raise their tails, Ellie gave no sign she was about to drop a 341-pound calf early Wednesday morning.

"The birth went exactly how we hoped it would, but it did come faster than we thought," said Martha Fischer, curator of mammals. "That's fine. It's on her timetable."

At 11:39 p.m. Tuesday, Ellie squatted three times. At 11:40 p.m. keepers observed a bulge - the calf - beneath her tail. (Unlike human babies which drop in the cervix, elephant calves rise.) They summoned Fischer, who was staying less than a mile away at the Cheshire Inn. She made it in time to see the calf's rear legs poke through at midnight. The calf was born shortly after midnight.
"She's as healthy as she can be," said Fischer of the Zoo's eighth elephant. "She's a great-looking animal, very strong, very filled-out."

Less than 12 hours after birth, the calf had mastered walking, used her trunk and was latching on to nurse.

"It's been an amazing day of firsts," said zookeeper Cory Nordin. "What surprises me most is how good her motor skills are already. It's amazing how coordinated she is."

Nordin, like several other members of the Zoo's elephant team, just missed the birth. "The entire time I was driving here, I was like, 'Hurry up. Please everyone, get out of my way,'" said Nordin. "When we walked in, she was just getting up."

Members of Ellie's herd, however, observed from the adjoining stall. Donna tried to hog the view until Sri and Rani - Ellie's firstborn - nudged their way in.

"There was a lot of roaring and trumpeting and deafening noise," said Fischer. "The air in the barn is charged."

Zookeepers whisked away this new baby, Ellie's second, to draw blood, confirm her sex and check her weight. Keepers returned her to Ellie within the hour.

The calf arrived a month later than expected and weighs nearly 100 pounds more than a typical newborn elephant. Mike Keele, chairman of American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan, does not know if the calf broke any weight records, but acknowledged, "She's a biggie."

Fischer hopes the public can meet the calf soon, maybe next week. First, Ellie, her baby and the rest of her herd need to get to know each other. They will stay together in the elephant barn and in a secluded yard with a kiddie pool for the calf. Raja, the father, will not participate in the parenting. That's the way it is in nature, too.

"In the wild, he would meet a female, breed her and then never see her again," said Fischer.

She witnessed Raja's birth in 1992 and cannot believe her little baby now has a baby of his own. "It's been really emotional for us," she said.

The arrival of the new calf comes in the wake of last year's tragedy, when Sri's calf died in utero. Sri still carries the dead fetus, which Zoo veterinarians hope she will expel within months.

The Zoo also is at the center of a heated debated about elephant programs. Some animal rights organizations argue that elephant exhibits are too small and that the concrete floors in elephant barns cause foot and joint problems. They also note that 11 elephant calves died during labor or shortly afterward in the past five years.

Keele, however, said breeding programs help create a sustainable elephant population in American zoos. This birth is significant, because neither Ellie's nor Raja's DNA is over-represented in the gene pool.

"She will stay with her mother, maybe forever," said Keele, who also serves as deputy director of the Oregon Zoo. "As long as the St. Louis Zoo continues its commitment, there is no reason to move them."

Four Asian elephants have been born this year in accredited U.S. zoos; six last year. Next year, the St. Louis Zoo hopes to add another Asian elephant to the list. Ellie's daughter Rani is expecting her first calf in February; Raja is the father.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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