Welcome, Little Girl!

We look forward to watching our newest elephant grow!

Elephant keeper Weston must have the magic touch: he’s been on a few 24-hour night-watch shifts here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and has been lucky to witness three elephant births in the three years he’s worked for us.

I received a call at home from Weston at 3:17 in the morning on Tuesday, August 28; he said he thought Swazi’s behavior was becoming more active. I told him to call me back if labor progressed, because we both thought that a birth might be a few hours away. I wondered (and really wished) if I could get another hour of sleep before I started making phone calls. I contemplated my next move. Lying in bed with my eyes closed while holding onto my cell phone, I received a text at 3:32 a.m. that read “I’d say we are under way.” While getting dressed in the dark, I managed to send out two texts to inform others of Swazi’s sudden change of behavior when, 14 minutes later, Weston texted me “baby is out.” Just like Swazi’s last calf, once she shows she’s in real labor, it’s over quickly!

Two incoming volunteer night watchers missed the birth by five minutes, but two others got to see the whole thing. By the time I rolled in, everything was pretty calm: Swazi and the newborn in our lower holding yard, son Macembe socializing through the cables with Umngani’s clan and Kami and Emanti out in the main yard. Weston said the calf got up within 15 minutes of birth, and Swazi was moving the calf around with her feet quite a bit. (Elephant moms scuff their feet along their newborn’s body to remove the amniotic sac and to get the calf to start breathing. It looks extremely aggressive, to say the least). Weston originally thought it was a boy, but the volunteers thought it was a girl. I didn’t commit either way until some daylight came out and I had personally observed a few urinations. Even when I was 95 percent sure it was a girl, I couldn’t come out and say it right away, because six boys in a row will do that to you! It will take staff many months before we quit saying “he” when referring to the newest calf.

Because it was important that she received the colostrum from Mom’s milk, I decided to separate Macembe into the lower yard and have Mom and new baby in the upper yard. Weston said that even though Swazi was shooing him away, Macembe still managed to sneak in a couple of quick nursings (Kami was the same way when her mother, Umoya, had Emanti). The upper yard is also more level, which would give baby a better chance at nursing.

Well, our new baby definitely isn’t Macembe-size, that’s for sure! As she attempted to nurse, it was obvious that she’d really have to stretch to reach long-legged Swazi’s nipples. We all started to wonder if she even could. Not seeing any success has a way of working on your anxieties. When we decided to try to weigh the baby just after 10 in the morning, we stopped Mom down the hallway, which allowed the calf to get into a great position to nurse. She found it! So, just over six hours after being born, the calf finally nursed (always one of two “huge-relief” milestones we like to see). Eventually, the calf nursed again, each successive nursing getting better and better, and now she’s good to go.

The next milestone was Mom passing her placenta. We could see that Swazi was still having contractions, and she looked great physically and behaviorally, so it became a waiting game with much worrying on our part. According to our data collections on 12 births, the placenta passed by the ninth hour or it didn’t. Swazi passed her placenta at 6:48 p.m. So doing the math, that’s over 16 hours. Who cares? It’s out! It looked completely intact, so we shoveled it into a plastic-lined trash can, double-bagged it, and put it in one of our extra refrigerators. Now it’s in the hands of our pathologists, who just love dissecting and studying these things.

Now it’s back to new-baby-normal for all of us. Macembe is back with Mom as well. He sure got the message this time around: as far as milk is concerned, it’s over! He vocalized his displeasure at Momma’s disciplining ways, and for now, keeps his distance. If all continues to go well, Swazi’s clan will meet the other moms and calves today. We’ll have Msholo join the gang on Sunday.

So keep your fingers crossed that all continues to go well, and hey, it’s a GIRL!!!!!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Vus’Musi.

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