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 Malee’s baby sibling.
Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino has been the director of veterinary services at the zoo since 2008, during which time she has been involved in the discovery of Asha’s 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 Asha’s pregnancy with Malee.
“We knew we were going to need someone to do the daily progesterone levels, but we didn’t have the funding to buy the equipment,” D’Agostino 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 Smithsonian’s 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 Asha’s hormone levels daily with information from the Bennett Institute and send a week’s 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 Smithsonian’s 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,” D’Agostino said.
There has also been training — even re-training — for everyone from the zookeepers to Asha herself for the birth. With the staff, it’s 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, it’s mainly a refresher course, as it will be stressful and crowded. D’Agostino 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, they’re 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,” D’Agostino 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.
“We’re ready any day now, but even the tests can only tell us so much,” D’Agostino said. “But we’re 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 keeper’s judgment about when the baby is ready to tackle the great outdoors.
Print: Before birth; The OKC Zoo prepares for a second elephant birth in four years