Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Oooh, baby! Elephant's arrival definitely a big achievement

Toledo Zoo officials yesterday announced the arrival of a bouncing - well, more like lumbering, snorting, and extraordinarily hungry - baby boy.

First-time mom, Renee, is fine, though a bit nervous at the 275-pound gray mass that slipped onto the wood-chip-strewn concrete floor of the zoo's elephant house at 11:49 p.m. Wednesday.

But yesterday, the 24-year-old African elephant became ever more curious - snaking her trunk through the metal rails of her stall to explore and nuzzle her son on the other side.

“This is one of the most, if not the most, significant days in the history of the Toledo Zoo,” an exuberant Bill Dennler, the zoo's executive director, said during a morning news conference.

He added later, referring to the 1988 exhibit from China that drew national press: “This beats the pandas all over the place.”

To understand why, one must understand elephant reproduction. It's a long, tedious process in the wild, and an even more risk-riddled, nerve-wracking process in captivity.

Only half of captive Asian and African elephants live to their first birthday. Successful African elephant births are even rarer. American Zoological and Aquarium zoos logged about a dozen births since 1995, said Michael Keele, chairman of the AZA's elephant species survival plan.

Of those, only four, including yesterday's newcomer, are alive.

Toledo Zoo staff knew the odds painfully well.

In July, the zoo's other elephant, Rafiki, had a 350-pound stillborn calf. The birth had progressed well, but in the last frantic moments, the calf suffocated in the birth canal.

On Wednesday, less than a week from her anticipated May 6 due-date, Renee's daily blood tests signaled she was going into labor.

The expectant mom was escorted inside the elephant house, while two stalls away, Rafiki curiously thrust around her trunk, groping and sniffing and snorting.

Renee rumbled as her contractions intensified. Staff encouraged her with apples. She dropped to the ground and stretched in pain.

Rafiki trumpeted. Staff paced.

By 10 p.m., it was clear the baby was on its way to the outside world, and that's when things routinely get critical. Again, it all goes back to elephant reproduction.

An elephant's birth canal is shaped like a question mark as the baby passes the pelvic brim and then curves and drops three feet toward the opening between the rear legs.

Complicating matters is the umbilical cord, which is too short to make the entire journey. If all goes well, the cord detaches midway through birth and the baby quickly clears the last few feet of the canal. Otherwise, it suffocates.

Toledo's infant pachyderm did fine and was immediately alert. “Actually, it took four people to keep it from going everywhere it wanted to go,” said Dr. Dennis Schmitt, a professor at Southwest Missouri State University who performed the artificial insemination technique that impregnated Renee.

Renee, meanwhile, was startled. Having been raised at the Toledo Zoo, she'd never seen a birth. Keepers immediately separated her from the baby.

Now, the zoo will begin reintroducing mom and the still-unnamed baby. It's a balancing act, enabling the two to bond without triggering mother's nervousness and any aggression. “She realizes who he is; she's not quite sure what she's supposed to do with him,” said Randi Meyerson, curator of large mammals.

The calf yesterday was being hand-fed its mother's milk by staff through tubing, but will be introduced as soon as Renee seems ready.

Eventually, Rafiki will be bought into the mix and the trio will be returned to the public exhibit.

The Toledo Zoo's newborn African elephant is still unnamed. But here are his vitals:

Born at 11:49 p.m. April 30 after a 22-month pregnancy to mother, Renee.

Weighs 275 pounds.

Stands about three feet high.

Will drink about three gallons of milk a day.

Can gain up to two pounds a day.

Has a 50/50 chance of living longer than one year.

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