Death in the Family 

The Oakland Zoo copes with the loss of its youngest elephant

Tragedy comes in all sizes, and sorrow to all families. Two days before terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Centers, the family -- human and elephantine -- at the Oakland Zoo were mourning their own loss. The zoo's newest addition, an elephant calf only ten days old, had mysteriously died in the night. Staffers who had so recently celebrated the arduous and, in North America, extremely rare event of assisting a live elephant birth were grief-stricken; at a press conference given the next day, eyes were red and faces pale. The calf's mother, a 24-year-old African elephant named Lisa, hardly looked any better; she'd been given a mild tranquilizer, and as the cameras clicked in front of her, she listlessly tossed about clumps of leaves.

Preparation for the birth of Lisa's calf, whom keepers named Dohani, had been painstaking and lengthy -- elephants carry their unborn young for 22 months. The anxiety surrounding Dohani's delivery had been compounded by the fact that Lisa had miscarried her first pregnancy, and rejected a calf named Kijana who was born in 1995. Kijana died eleven months later of a viral infection. Dohani's successful birth, his apparent good health, and the ease with which he seemed to bond with his mother had been cause for great jubilation at the zoo. It was only the fifth live elephant birth in North America since 1995.

Dohani's death came as a profound shock. A preliminary autopsy pointed to a traumatic chest injury -- two broken ribs and a punctured lung -- as the cause of death. The wounds were most likely accidentally inflicted by his mother; zoo staff speculate that the lacerations were made by Lisa's tusk, perhaps while she was trying to help Dohani stand up. There were no signs that Dohani had the virus that killed Kijana.

The inquiry into Dohani's death was as meticulous as any crime scene investigation for humans. Zoo staff noted that the room was "very orderly for an elephant room," that Dohani was found in a normal sleeping position, and that a keeper doing a routine feeding two hours before the calf's death had noted that mother and child were standing together peacefully. They also point to the affectionate relationship between the two. "Once they were introduced, [Lisa] showed no sign of aggression towards [Dohani] at any point," says zoo executive director Dr. Joel Parrott. "She was actually a very doting mother, who encouraged him to breastfeed and stayed with him. If he wandered away, she would push him back, and if she wandered away, he would follow her. They did everything that a normal cow/calf relationship would [entail] in the wild."

Following the autopsy, Dohani was returned to Lisa to allow her to grieve; staffers observed that she refused to leave the body, instead standing over Dohani and gently touching him with her trunk. The loss was no less emotional for staff, some of whom had been training for the delivery for over a year. "There's something about elephants," says Parrott. "You feel this void that can really only be compared to that void you feel from losing a long-term friend or a family member."

Dohani's death is also a massive blow because the Oakland Zoo plays a pivotal role in the United States' program to breed elephants in captivity. African elephants are considered a threatened species, their numbers diminished largely due to ivory poaching. At one point, poaching had taken such a toll that some figures suggested the African elephant would be extinct by the year 2000.

Dohani (whose name means "smoke" in Swahili) had been named for his sire, the Oakland Zoo's late great bull elephant Smokey, who passed away in April. Smokey was one of only a handful of breeding bulls in North America and Dohani, the inheritor of what zookeepers considered extremely promising genetic material, had been expected to carry on in his father's giant footsteps once he reached maturity. "He was to be Smokey's legacy, and it's a heartbreak to lose him, on many levels," says Allison Lindquist, the zoo's assistant director. "Smokey's genes were important to the gene pool of captive breeding, and to have that loss is tragic."

Getting elephants pregnant is trickier than it might seem. Elephant semen is viable only for a short period of time and cannot be frozen, so even artificial insemination isn't a guarantee of success. The Oakland Zoo is one of the few in North America with the capability to care for adult males. "They are very powerful, very large, very destructive, so very few facilities can house bull elephants," says Parrott. But finding the right bull for breeding is difficult. "First he has to be of breeding age, then there have to be cows who will receive him, then he has to be producing viable semen, which is not a given in the world of the elephant," he says. "All of a sudden you get down to a really small pool."

The flip side to the problem is that while there aren't many male elephants equipped to be fathers, there also aren't that many females well-prepared to be mothers. Despite the fact that elephants are a matriarchal society, most female elephants in captivity have been raised without a herd, and therefore haven't been exposed to good parenting. In the wild, a female elephant would stay with her mother her entire life; she would watch the birth of her siblings, and learn nurturing skills from her mother. When it came time for her to give birth herself, other elephants would assist her. "Lisa had none of that, so to say she was inexperienced would be an understatement," says Parrott.

Knowing that elephants do best when allowed to behave naturally, the Oakland Zoo has pioneered a method of elephant management they call "protected contact," one which gives the animals as much freedom as possible and, as staffers say, "lets elephants be elephants."

"We don't hit elephants, we don't use hooks, we don't use anything that is physical discipline," says Parrott. "It's purely voluntary for the elephant." This was the idea behind reintroducing Lisa to her calf as soon as possible, and letting them bond with minimal human interference.

Dohani's death has made some wonder whether the breeding process is too risky, especially with inexperienced mothers like Lisa. Parrott maintains that the zoo should not have done anything differently. "All we can do in animal management, or even in medicine, is set the stage for nature. We can make it optimal for [Lisa] to be in good condition to have a live calf; we can help the calf so that he's back with her as soon as possible but not until he's ready to stand; we can bring them together closely, slowly, so that it's gradual and nothing sudden would occur; but then there comes a point where nature has to take over," he says. "I can assure you that she can be a better mother to an elephant than humans can, whether it's the makeup of the milk or the constant nurturing that goes on in raising a normal, psychologically healthy elephant. At that point you just have to make that commitment that we're going to allow the elephants to raise elephants."

Zoo staff say they will try again for another elephant pregnancy; Lisa still has another twenty years of breeding life ahead of her, and the Oakland Zoo has two more female elephants, Donna and M'Dunda. "There's no doubt in my mind" that they should try again, says assistant elephant manager Greg Gilbert. "I keep coming back in my own mind to telling a couple in their mid-twenties who have lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or something like that, that maybe it would be just easier if you went through life childless. I don't think that's the way it's supposed to be."

In preparing for Dohani's birth, the zoo also learned skills that will be invaluable the next time, including inventing a birthing chute and training a team of seventeen to handle deliveries. But the next baby elephant won't arrive at the Oakland Zoo anytime soon. "It will be years," says Parrott. "We still have the process of bringing in a bull, and then it's a 22-month gestation, so I think our soonest would be three years from now." If necessary, they are willing to try artificial insemination.

In the meantime, zoo staffers are taking comfort in the fact that they did the right thing by trying to help elephants in captivity experience natural family relationships. Gilbert puts it this way: "Dohani wasn't for us; he wasn't for the public. He was for Lisa and the program. We got the spin-off of being able to see a baby elephant be a baby elephant. That was wonderful. You only see that in the case of African elephants if you have the opportunity to go to Africa, and it was a joy to see it here, to see a carefree little soul out there doing elephant things."

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