Zookeepers Help Chai Learn to Mother
Female Asian elephants live in groups known as matriarchies. As with other higher mammals, maternal behavior is learned. In captivity Chai has not had an opportunity to observe mothering, but she is bonding with her calf very nicely. The baby cannot reach her mother's milk (elephants have only two human-like breasts between their front legs). In the wild the mother elephant knows to kneel down, plus in the wild the Aunty elephants babysit and provide other assistance. The zookeepers built a little platform for this baby to climb up on so the calf could reach her mother's milk and this worked very well.
Chai, an elephant from Thailand, was 21 years old at the time of the birth. She arrived in Seattle at age one and grew up at Woodland Park Zoo. She lives within the third ranking of the dominance hierarchy of the zoo's four elephants. The other elephants were permitted to witness the birth and they can see the new baby but they were kept separate.
The zoo's four elephants in order of dominance are:
- Watoto, 30, an African elephant, wildborn, who was probably an orphan. She was born in Kenya during a time of extensive poaching. Watoto is quite interested in the new baby and reaches out to touch it with her trunk.
- Bamboo, 33, an Asian elephant who grew up in the Children's zoo area of Woodland Park Zoo. Bamboo reaches out to touch the baby but when the baby moves she startles back as if she has just encountered a snake.
- Chai, 21, is described by her keeper, Pat Maluy, as a sweetheart. She is shy and gentle, not very curious, and relates to the other elephants more than to people.
- Sri (pronounced See), 20, an Asian elephant who like Chai was a gift from Bangkok. Sri is of the same opinion as Bamboo.
Breeding in Captivity: Difficult and Dicey
For six years, attempts were made to artificially inseminate Chai. She was inseminated more than 50 times, but never got pregnant. Therefore it was decided to try to breed her with a bull elephant. The Woodland Park Zoo elephant exhibit is designed for female elephants and has no bull. It was decided to breed Chai to Onyx, a bull at Dickerson Park Zoo, in Missouri. Onyx aka "Big Mac" was born in the Assam Valley in northern India. He was once part of a three-elephant act known as the "Mitie-Mites."
For Chai, the journey to Missouri would involve a long and extremely stressful trip. But, since she wasn't getting pregnant, and since elephants in captivity tend to lose the ability to get pregnant at about age 25, it was decided that it had to be done.
A special elephant crate was brought to the zoo and the keepers trained her to get into the crate. Finally she got in for the big trip. The door was closed and the crate was forklifted onto a truck and Chai began her 2,100-mile trip to Missouri. It was 60 hours on the road.
According to lead elephant keeper Pat Maluy:
"We were concerned with her being on the freeway and the movement of the vehicle and not knowing where she was. We tried to plan for every contingency we could think of. We contacted over 15 different facilities with veterinary care that agreed to be on call during the course of the trip, should there be any problems. Chai was extremely tired and frightened and she wasn't eating. Certainly elephants can go weeks without food, but our main concern was that she wasn't interested in drinking water and that could be a big problem. We had to tempt her with a variety of water-based foods such as watermelon and things that she was interested in eating.
"I couldn't explain to her that everything would be ok. That was somewhat hard for me to deal with. We were finally getting closer to our destination at Dickerson Park. The bull that we planned to breed Chai with at Dickerson Park was named Onyx, and we were curious as to how the initial introduction would go. We started getting really concerned towards the last part of the trip, around the 40th hour. She had been laying down a lot and we were concerned that she might somehow become wedged in the small confines of the crate. So I made the decision to go into the crate with her, just to hold her hand so to speak, and to make sure that she knew somebody was there with her. It seemed to help. In fact, she never did lie down again while I was riding with her."
Chai spent 51 weeks socializing with Onyx and the other elephants. Elephants are clannish and slow to accept newcomers and the other females at Dickerson picked on her. She was unhappy and lost 1,000 pounds.
But finally she got pregnant and could come home. The trip home was a breeze. She ate all the way. She knew she was coming home. Her keeper stayed in the cage with her and when he fell asleep she would sniff his face with her trunk. When she arrived the other elephants became extremely excited.
Baby Takes First Steps and First Run
Her calf was born 22 months later, exactly on schedule. After the new baby was born, the public was barred from visiting for the first two days to enable Chai to bond with her without disturbance. The public was admitted on the third day. A baby elephant is like a colt, and she stood, walked, and ran on the first day.
Chai's legs had been chained so she wouldn't squash the baby, and they were unchained on November 6. According to lead elephant keeper, Pat Maluy, Chai and her calf were learning how to walk around each other. "Chai treads carefully and adjusts her body to accommodate her calf beneath her legs."
In 2004, Hansa weighed 3,112 pounds. She continued to nurse and also ate hay, grain, vegetables, and fruit.
On June 8, 2007, Hansa, who was 6 years old, was found dead in her stall. She had been "under the weather" since May 31. Zoo staff had noted colic-like symptoms, and a poor appetite. Tests had been inconclusive, but she was under observation and being given antibiotics. The zoo conducted a necropsy on the afternoon of her death, but results would not be known for several weeks. The elephant exhibit was closed for the day and there were many expressions of shock and sadness.