TULSA — An elephant from the Oklahoma City Zoo is pregnant after only one breeding attempt with a male elephant at the Tulsa Zoo. Asha conceived in July and is expected to give birth in May 2011. Her sister, Chandra, also mated with male Sneezy, though that attempt was unsuccessful. If Asha’s pregnancy continues normally, the sisters will return to the Oklahoma City Zoo next year. Asha’s offspring will be the first elephant born at the zoo. Like all mammals, the first trimester for pregnant elephants is the most fragile. But staff members at both zoos are hopeful, said Mike Connolly, assistant curator of elephants at the Tulsa Zoo. "It’s hard not to just want to go jumping, leaping through the buildings, through the hallways,” Connolly said. "We realize there’s a long road ahead of us, but this is something we’ve definitely been hoping for, working toward.”
Asha’s peanutAsha and Chandra were moved to Tulsa in June 2008 as part of the Elephant Species Survival Plan, the nationwide breeding program that monitors genetics and the elephant population. Neither has ever bred, and male Sneezy doesn’t have any living offspring. The breeding plan all came down to timing, Connolly said. The sisters had to be comfortable in their new home, and zoo staff had to be sure they could accurately predict both elephants’ ovulation cycles. Tulsa zookeepers also had to decide how to introduce the females to Sneezy. They discussed the options with Oklahoma City keepers and experts from across the country. In the end, the consensus was that the sisters should meet Sneezy together. They were put together with him in June. The females spent their days in the same habitat as Sneezy and then went to their own enclosure at night. But as Asha neared ovulation in July, Sneezy sought a change of plans, Connolly said. The bull would stay close to them and prevent them from leaving at night. Zookeepers decided to let the three stay together overnight until they bred. Two days later, Asha and Sneezy mated. "He’s a very good, well-behaved bull,” Connolly said. "He’s very tolerant and it went really, really smoothly.” In August, Chandra ovulated, and Sneezy mated with her. That attempt was unsuccessful. Zoo staff suspected Asha was pregnant and got confirmation in October. An ultrasound showed a tiny elephant — about the size of a shelled peanut — inside her womb. "I feel like this is our way to make a difference and make a contribution. … This is really a great time for elephant conservation,” Connolly said. But the excitement aside, Connolly and his team are turning their attention back to Chandra. They’ll have three or four more opportunities to pair her with Sneezy before both females will have to return to Oklahoma City.
Coming homeThe elephants will be moved back to the Oklahoma City Zoo at the same time, even if Asha is the only pregnant one, said Dwight Scott, executive director of the Oklahoma City Zoo. The sisters have a tight bond from living together their whole lives, and separating them could be mentally devastating. They’ll return to a $22.7 million new exhibit: Expedition Asia, which is under construction. Their new habitat will be roughly 10 times the size of their old yard, Scott said. The Asia exhibit also includes two habitats for bull elephants. "The commitment we are making to elephant breeding and conservation is quite significant,” he said. Even though Asha’s pregnancy and delivery will be a first for Oklahoma City, the staff will be prepared and ready, said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services. Veterinarians at both zoos talk regularly about the pregnancy and make decisions together. Zoo staff will monitor the elephants and put them on a 24-hour watch as delivery nears, D’Agostino said. But they’ll have a hands-off approach. "If all goes according to plan,” she said, "our role is basically going to be to watch.” But if things don’t go according to plan, D’Agostino and others are working out solutions to all kinds of scenarios and putting the protocol in writing ahead of time. "We have every reason to believe this is going to be a successful pregnancy,” she said.