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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

For zookeepers, this elephant is a labor of love

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Like any man whose significant other is expecting, Don RedFox often awakens during the night and thinks about...elephants.

Yes, elephants.

Since October of 2000, Rafiki, a 20-year-old pachyderm Mr. RedFox has watched over for more than 15 years at the Toledo Zoo, has been pregnant, and sometime this summer she's due to give birth.

Her impending labor makes things like groundbreaking for the $20 million African exhibit, a levy renewal, and other events at the zoo set for this year seem a little anti-climactic.

But birthing an elephant in captivity is dicey stuff, and zoo officials like Mr. RedFox, the elephant manager, caution that plenty of things could go wrong.

Hence, the sleepless nights.

“I wake up at night out of my sleep and think `elephants.' It's not the greatest thing to wake up to, but it's such a commitment,” he said.

Rafiki was impregnated using a surgical artificial insemination procedure that was being tried for the first time at a U.S. zoo. So everyone's attention in the zoo community throughout the country will be focused on Toledo in late July or early August, when she is due.

Mr. RedFox has spent hours developing protocols so that he and the five-member staff that oversees the pachyderms are prepared for everything that could go wrong, or right, with the birth.

Plenty of things could go seriously awry. Elephants are social creatures, with highly evolved relationships among their herd members. Female elephants become “aunts” to the herd's young and they help in raising the offspring. And within the herd, young females watch and observe the birthing process so they are somewhat prepared when their time comes.

“In the wild they would see other females giving birth and would know what's going on,” said Randi Meyerson, mammal curator.

In captivity, little of that socialization occurs.

Rafiki and her pregnant counterpart Renee were hauled over to the Pittsburgh zoo last year so they could be there when one of its elephants gave birth.

“They were there and heard the sounds and smelled the smells and saw some of the commotion going on,” Mr. RedFox said.

Among the potential problems are that Rafiki sees the calf as a bad thing because it caused her so much pain, so there's no bonding or she crushes it. The calf could be unhealthy, or a complicated birth could endanger Rafiki. The absolute worst-case scenario is that a zoo keeper is injured or even killed if the 8,000 to 10,000 pound mother gets out of control.

The strategy for now is similar to that of any pregnancy, whether it involves a human or animal.

“What we strive to do is minimize as many risks as possible and hope for the best,” Ms. Meyerson said. “It's still a very unusual event to have an elephant born in captivity.”

Ms. Meyerson cited the Kansas City zoo's experience as an example of the precarious nature of birthing an elephant. In that case, everything looked fine, all the ultrasounds checked out and then when the elephant's water broke, nothing happened and the calf never emerged alive.

For now, the zoo is keeping a close eye on Rafiki and Renee, who is due in May or June of 2003.

“Our big concern right now is like any other pregnancy, just watching her weight and making sure she gets enough exercise and the right diet,” Mr. RedFox said.

Zoo officials plan to ask voters to consider a levy renewal or replacement this year. The district receives $4.3 million of its $15 million operating budget from a 0.7-mill levy approved in 1997.

Andi Norman, zoo spokeswoman, said the zoo has not determined how much millage to ask for in November.

The zoo will complement its new wolf exhibit this year with Howl!, an exhibit in its museum that will provide information, fun facts, and trivia about wolves. The inside of the museum is being remodeled to resemble a forest visitors will stroll through.

The exhibit is designed to focus on conserving the endangered animals and promote educational efforts.

Also at the zoo this year, official groundbreaking will be held for the new African savanna, a four-acre, $20 million exhibit scheduled to open in 2004.

The exhibit will feature a number of the zoo's hoof-stock - zebras, giraffes, kudus - in a free-range area.



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