Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo and Dr. Dennis Schmitt (shown in maroon scrubs) performed an artificial insemination last night on Chai, a 32-year-old Asian elephant. If she is pregnant, her due date will be late 2013.

Zoo artificially inseminates elephant again

Woodland Park Zoo and a visiting expert in elephant reproduction performed an artificial insemination procedure last night on Chai, the zoo’s 32-year-old Asian elephant.

This is the third artificial insemination attempt on Chai this year and 59th time total, according to animal-activists organization, Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.

Semen for the procedure was contributed by a 13-year-old bull at ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque, N.M. With no offspring to date, the bull is genetically valuable to the North American population of elephants.

“It will be approximately 15 to 16 weeks before we can confirm a pregnancy by ultrasound and through hormonal changes in Chai,” explained Dr. Nancy Hawkes, the zoo’s general curator and resident expert in elephant reproduction. The gestation period for elephants is 22 months. “If Chai is pregnant, we would expect her to give birth in late 2013.”

Dr. Dennis Schmitt, a leading expert in elephant reproductive physiology and a professor of animal science at Missouri State University, joined the zoo’s elephant management and animal health staff in performing the artificial insemination.

Chai gave birth to Hansa, a female elephant in 2000 but Hansa died unexpectedly at 6 years old from a newly discovered elephant herpesvirus.

“A baby would help us begin to re-build a multigenerational social group here at the zoo,” said Hawkes.

The artificial insemination procedure is performed without the use of any sedatives or other drugs in a specialized chute that is used for health evaluations. “All of the zoo’s elephants are trained to enter the chute for routine husbandry and medical care. Our expert elephant keepers have invested hours of training, over many years, preparing Chai for the procedure,” said Bruce Upchurch, the zoo’s curator of elephants.

“Chai’s health and well being come first,” added Upchurch. “We pay very close attention to her cues and she can choose to participate or not. If she showed any signs of discomfort in the chute and with the procedure, we wouldn’t proceed.”

During the 15-minute procedure, the keepers provided Chai with lots of attention and buckets of favorite treats such as apples, carrots and chunks of pumpkin. “Chai was calm throughout the procedure. She enjoys the extra personal attention and loves her treats,” said Upchurch.

Woodland Park Zoo states that they remain committed to sustaining a genetically healthy population of elephants in zoos by participating in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for elephants. SSPs are cooperative breeding programs to help ensure genetic diversity and demographic stability of endangered species in North American zoos and aquariums.

In the wild, elephants continue to face extreme pressure from conflicts with humans. “The role of zoos is more critical now than ever before,” said Marc Ancrenaz, director of the Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation project. “In zoos accredited by AZA, elephants play an important role as conservation emissaries. Seeing, hearing, and experiencing these striking animals up close can help zoo-goers make an emotional connection and be inspired to take action to protect elephants in the wild.”

All of the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo are female. In addition to Chai, the other members of the herd are 44-year-old Asian elephant Bamboo and 42-year-old African elephant Watoto.

For more information about Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program, visit www.zoo.org/elephants

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