Caretakers at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s International Conservation Center in Somerset County are preparing for a new calf.
A 23-year-old African elephant named Seeni is getting close to her due date, estimated for this summer. Seeni is somewhat new to the area though, so caregivers are trying to ensure they bond with her so she can bond with the calf.
“This is actually Seeni’s second baby,” said Willie Theison, elephant program manager for the zoo and ICC. “While she was in Africa, she had a calf. Unfortunately she rejected it and they lost it. We’re hoping this time around she’ll do what moms are supposed to do and take care of it.”
The International Conservation Center currently cares for and breeds elephants, though future plans include expanding space for other animals, as well. Conservation of elephants is considered critical because of their dwindling numbers in the wild due to poaching, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
There are four female elephants at the ICC and one bull, named Jackson, who has mated with three of the females. The fourth, Bette, is considered too old. Jackson is a prolific bull, he’s fathered 15 elephants around the country. Pairing him with Seeni, who came to Pennsylvania in 2011, introduces new genetics into the U.S. elephant population, Theison said.
He said the elephant’s cycle is monitored to determine when to put the two together.
“Jackson does do an excellent job, but with these females, he’s not super familiar with them, so he doesn’t have a strong kinship with them like he does with the females at the zoo,” he said. “So we have to do a little dating process with him to see if he likes the females.”
Seeni and Jackson hit it off.
“(Jackson) kind of woos the girls, he doesn’t overpower them and force them to do anything they don’t want to do, so we’re very fortunate in that with him,” Theison said.
Eventually, blood tests will inform caretakers as to whether a female elephant is pregnant, but there are other signs, too.
“There are some behavior changes with the elephants,” Theison said. “They get a little milder, not nearly as active, they consider eating more than anything else. But the blood gives us the definitive proof that she is pregnant.”
Elephant’s gestation periods average 22 months, so Seeni has been pregnant for a while. Theison said she may give birth in July and she’ll do so in the ICC’s new Maternal Care Center. It’s phase two of the African elephant program and consists of a large barn with a fenced in dirt paddock for the elephants to roam along, with stalls and a medical chute. Phase one included upgrading Jackson’s bull barn. Up until the opening of the Maternal Care Center, all of the elephants were housed in one space.
“He’s got his man cave back now, so he’s pretty happy,” Theison said.
As for the pregnancy, they will work to ensure Seeni doesn’t gain too much weight – they want the calf to average 200 to 250 pounds.“The biggest challenge is getting her to pass the calf,” Theison said. “As long as she’s in good, physical condition, there shouldn’t be any problems. There have been problems with other elephants in the past who have retained the calf, who were unable to pass it, that’s due mainly to the calf being too large.”
During the pregnancy, Theison said he and the other ICC employs will continue to try to bond with Seeni. He said the more comfortable she is with them, the less overwhelmed she’ll be during birth. The comfortable environment will also help facilitate bonding with her calf.
“We will give her every single opportunity we can to do that,” he said. “If not we’re going to have to switch gears and look at how we’re going to raise this calf, because it’s vital that this calf is going to be raised with elephants, not by itself. So the plan would possibly be to move the calf to the zoo where we’ve had several babies. We have a mom who is exceptional with babies, that way it would grow up socially, in a group of elephants.”
If Seeni does accept the baby and if it’s a girl, it will stay with the other females permanently. If it’s a boy, it will stay with them until around age 13, when it’ll get pushed out of the herd, at which point he’d be moved to live with Jackson.
Now, all eyes are on Seeni and ensuring a healthy pregnancy and delivery. The mortality rate for newborn elephants in captivity is about 30 percent, so while there is a lot of excitement caretakers are cautious.
“I won’t breathe a sigh of relief until I see mom with a healthy baby,” Theison.