Pachyderm Pending blog: The front room, 50 years of elephant births at the Oregon Zoo

November 2, 2012 - 9:28am

Me-tu, born Oct. 3, 1962

In a modest old building tucked into the far corner of the zoo is an 80-by-20-foot space known to elephant keepers simply as "the front room." For the past 50 years, it's served as North America's most productive pachyderm nursery; 27 elephants have been born here. Packy was the first. And soon, Rose-Tu will deliver the last. Over the next couple of years, this hallowed room — state of the art when it was built in 1959 — will be replaced with the zoo's visionary new Elephant Lands habitat, and the front room will linger only as a memory, a legendary chapter in the zoo's history.

It all began in 1962, when news of Asian elephant Belle's pregnancy captivated the region. It had been 44 years since the Western Hemisphere saw an elephant birth, and nobody knew exactly when the calf would arrive. For three months, the front room buzzed with reporters — playing poker, smoking, sleeping on hay and waiting for Belle. Hourly "Bell-e-tins" were broadcast on Portland radio stations. By the time Belle went into labor, many reporters had given up. That pregnancy delivered Packy to us, of course. It also taught the wildlife community that an Asian elephant's gestation lasts around 22 months.

For the next 20 years, the front room yielded new discoveries with each elephant birth, but there were still surprises. Keepers occasionally arrived to find a wobbly calf born the night before.

In 1982, the Oregon Zoo hypothesized that a drop in a mother's progesterone level indicated imminent labor. Shine's birth in December of that year proved the theory, and the findings helped others in the international zoo community better prepare for the arrival of their own elephant calves.

The front room was also a birthing ground for new technologies. Many zoos did not breed elephants because they did not keep bull elephants. Musth — the periodic condition in which males become aggressive and unpredictable — made the bulls difficult to manage. The Oregon Zoo circumvented this problem by being the first to use hydraulic doors to humanely control a bull's movements.

This all transpired during an era when human medical advances were conquering disease, and supplanting thousands of years of tradition, an era when human mothers were usually anesthetized at birth and kept isolated in the hospital for several days afterwards.

The same sort of thinking affected animals in zoos. The prevailing wisdom of the time recommended quiet and isolation for animals giving birth.

"Now we've learned how important it is for new moms to have gained experience through watching other females give birth," said Mike Keele, director of elephant habitats for the Oregon Zoo.

Older females support the laboring cow and train her in motherhood. Younger females learn from watching other births.

"If a female has never been present at a birth, her risk of having a failed birth is high, because she can be confused due to her inexperience," Keele said. "With so much emphasis on husbandry and medical procedures, stress was probably not something zoos paid much attention to in the 1960s and 1970s. The zoo had so many successes with elephant births, we almost took them for granted, but now there's more sensitivity to an animal's environment, to make it conducive for her to thrive. For example, we've had concerns about construction on Highway 26, and we have the ability to shut it down if it is disturbing Rose-Tu as the birth approaches."

Animals, Keele said, need stress challenges to learn how to adapt to change competently, but as with humans, some types of stress can be detrimental.

"We want to avoid stress that's constant, stress that the animal cannot control," Keele said. "Rose-Tu is used to concerts in summer and highway traffic, so we don't want to change those environmental components unless she shows they stress her. What would be stressful would be to treat her with kid gloves, to radically change her environment by keeping it super quiet."

Despite the advances in our understanding of elephant pregnancy, the front room has remained largely unchanged. Cushioned material now sits in place of concrete floors. Reporters no longer camp out for months on end. Aside from that, Rose-Tu's calf will open its eyes, be caressed by its mother, and take its first steps in the same nursery that welcomed Packy into the world 50 years ago.