An elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo is expected to give birth within the next few days, zoo officials said Monday.
Asha, an Asian elephant, is due May 1, but changes in her hormones suggest she could go into labor as early as today, officials said.
The zoo's two elephants were taken off exhibit Sunday morning, zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson said.
Asha will remain in the maternity stall inside the elephant barn until she gives birth. Chandra, her sister, will stay in the community stall until the calf is born.
Asha's calf will be the first elephant born at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Asha and Chandra spent two years in Tulsa to breed with a bull elephant there. Asha became pregnant, but Chandra did not. The sisters returned to a new habitat that spans 9½ acres and cost $13 million. It's the largest exhibit ever built at the Oklahoma City Zoo and the largest Asian elephant exhibit at any zoo in the country.
“There's a lot invested in this elephant calf,” said Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino, the zoo's veterinary director. “We want to make sure everything goes right.”
Staff practices for unpredictability
Zoo staff members are on standby, and some are camping out inside the elephant barn, sleeping on air mattresses and going home only to shower.
They've been training for months ahead of the birth, pachyderm supervisor Nick Newby said.
Volunteers and zoo staff have been tracking Asha's every move for weeks.
Observers note everything she does — sleeping, eating, tail swishing — 24 hours a day.
Veterinarian and keeper staff members have been practicing the birth scenario with Asha every Thursday for months, and they use a stuffed elephant named Sammy to play the role of Asha's calf.
There's a 37-page birth plan that lists every scenario the staff could think of, and plenty of elephant milk supplements are on hand just in case.
“We're pretty prepared for what we're going to do,” Newby said. “The thing that makes me nervous is the unknown factor.”
Variables exist, said D'Agostino, the veterinarian.
“A birth is a natural process,” she said. “Anything can happen.”
Like humans, elephants can have delivery problems, D'Agostino said. Calves can become trapped in the birth canal, suffer from birth defects or be stillborn.
Oklahoma City Zoo officials have agreed not to perform a cesarean section on Asha if things go wrong, D'Agostino said. No other elephant C-sections have been successful, and staff will work to save Asha first if the lives of her and her calf are in danger.
“There's only so much we can do if something goes wrong,” she said.
But so far, she said, everything looks normal. Asha is healthy.
Mother, calf will have alone time
Contractions can last for a couple of days, and active labor usually lasts from 12 to 24 hours, D'Agostino said. Once Asha's labor progresses, contractions may be visible.
“When it happens, you can't be sitting there with your jaw on the ground,” she said. “You've got to go. ... It could happen in a hurry.”
In the wild, other female elephants would take care of the calf immediately after birth, D'Agostino said.
But Chandra, the only other female in the Oklahoma City Zoo herd, has never been around calves, just like her sister. So vet staff will take over while Chandra views from afar within the elephant barn, D'Agostino said.
“We're a little bit more hands-on with our elephant birth than we are with some of our other animals,” she said.
The calf is expected to weigh about 250 pounds, she said.
D'Agostino and her staff will monitor the calf's breathing and check for any birth defects. They'll weigh the calf and draw blood. The elephant keepers will stay with Asha to help her finish the birthing process.
Asha and her calf will stay off-exhibit for a couple of days or weeks, depending on how well they both are doing after the delivery. When officials determine they're both doing well, they'll be able to be seen in the community stall.
Zoo visitors will be able to see them through soundproof windows at the top. Eventually, they'll move outdoors, and after that, the calf will meet its aunt, Chandra.