Woodland Park Zoo on long quest to make a baby elephant
Chai has undergone at least 50 artificial inseminations at Woodland Park Zoo. Officials say the efforts are about saving elephants and telling their story; critics call it cruelty.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The blue container arrives earlier than expected at the Woodland Park Zoo's elephant barn.
Dr. Nancy Hawkes eyes the contents: two vials of elephant semen. Slipping on pink latex gloves, she lowers a microscope over a slide and watches the sperm wriggle back and forth.
The sample, collected hours ago, comes from a 13-year-old elephant at an Albuquerque zoo — the potential father to a much-hoped-for Seattle baby. Hawkes tracks how fast the sperm swim.
"Seventy-two percent and 89 percent," she says. Good numbers, high enough to try an artificial insemination this March evening on Chai, the zoo's 32-year-old Asian elephant. Chai's been through this dozens of times before; it's time to bring her in.
The doors to the elephant barn start to open.
Woodland Park Zoo has spent nearly 20 years trying to impregnate Chai through artificial insemination (AI). It's never resulted in a live birth.
Zoo officials are determined. They say the future of captive elephants is in crisis. But AI continues to be a longshot. Scientific studies, even one cited by the zoo, spell out the myriad challenges of achieving a successful pregnancy through AI.
Activists for years have called on the zoo to stop trying to breed Chai. The most vocal argue the efforts amount to a form of cruelty.
Certainly, the process is complex, and a symphony of details must fall together for AI to work. Female elephants are fertile just three times a year, so timing is key. Unlike with other species, scientists haven't perfected a way to freeze elephant sperm. This limits viability to a window of 24 hours.
Throw off just one variable — say, a flight carrying the semen hits unexpected delays or a courier gets stuck in traffic — and chances drop.
In addition to that, few male elephants in the country are trained to be donors, and sperm quality can vary greatly. For instance, plans were scrapped for an AI the night before Chai's March 11 insemination, because the sample quality was too poor. And it was from the same elephant.
Bruce Bohmke, the zoo's deputy director, said the trouble of AI is worth the end goal.
"It's about saving elephants for us," said Bohmke, who sits on a committee that oversees management and reproduction of elephants in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "We think that by having elephants here, we can tell their story. Somebody needs to tell their story. And we believe strongly that seeing an animal in captivity has a huge impact."
AI is the best option for breeding now, he said. Zoo elephants in the United States rarely are imported from the wild these days; second, shipping elephants to breed out of state is time-consuming and disruptive to the animal.
Part of the zoo's rationale for pursuing AI stems from a 2004 study in the journal Zoo Biology, which states that Asian elephants in North America are "particularly vulnerable," because of low fertility rates. In fact, according to the study, the population could die out in 50 years without significant intervention.
Using an AI technique developed during the 1990s, an elephant named Shanti at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., was among the first to conceive after six attempts, according to the 2004 study. She gave birth to a male calf in 2001.
In U.S. zoos, only two Asian elephants conceived from AI are alive today, according to 2010 data from the North American Regional Studbook, a birth record of all captive Asian elephants. Those include Shanti's baby and another in New Mexico.
The numbers are higher for African elephants, with nine now living in zoos, according to 2011 captive birth data.
What gives hope to Woodland Park officials is that AI did result in one pregnancy for Chai in 2008 — though she miscarried in her first trimester.
Complaints from activists
Animal activists have pressed the zoo for years to stop breeding Chai and transfer all three of its female elephants to a sanctuary.
In June, two women filed an appeal after a King County Superior Court judge dismissed their lawsuit aimed at stopping the city from using taxpayer money for the Woodland Park Zoo. (Last year, the city funded $6.4 million of the zoo's $31 million budget.)
Among the complaints: inadequate space; using Chai and another elephant that once lived at the zoo as "breeding factories;" and potentially exposing a calf to the elephant herpes virus, which in 2007 killed Chai's only baby, Hansa, who had been conceived naturally.
Zoo officials say their elephants get the best care possible.
Some scientists have found that captivity can affect life span and fertility.
The largest land mammals in the world, elephants range hundreds of miles in the wild.
In captivity, enclosures are limited. The outdoor space for Woodland Park Zoo's three elephants, for example, is one acre. There is also a barn, where the elephants go when temperatures dip below 40 degrees.
Georgia Mason, a zoologist and research chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph in Ontario, co-wrote a study published in the journal Science in 2008 that looked at the quality of life of elephants in European zoos between 1960 and 2005, compared with elephants in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya and in a reserve in Myanmar.
According to the study, zoo elephants suffered more often from obesity, herpes, stress and foot problems, all of which can lead to infertility and shorter lives.
"Captive-born animals are dying early, and people need to know this," Mason said.
Although the study focused on European zoos, Mason said she's also examined the situation in the United States.
"The whole global zoo population of elephants is not sustainable without importation," she said.
On this March evening inside the elephant barn, there is no talk of disease or long odds. Optimism for a baby remains high.
Once the doors open, Chai comes into a chute — an enclosed chamber big enough for an 8,000-pound elephant to turn around in. Her rear legs get chained.
At one point, she sways back and forth, showing brief signs of discomfort as a catheter travels up her 10-foot-long reproductive tract. Elephant keepers soothe her with low voices and gentle strokes. She's fed a steady stream of apples, bananas and carrots, and appears to calm easily. About 20 minutes later, it's over. It will take months to confirm a pregnancy.
Bruce Upchurch, the zoo's curator of elephants, crosses his fingers, his arms, then his legs in a sign of hope.
"Now," he says, smiling, "we wait."
Gift from Thailand
Chai came to the Pacific Northwest in 1980 at age 1, a gift from Thai Airways International to celebrate its new Bangkok-Tokyo-Seattle route.
The elephant keepers at Woodland Park Zoo were charmed by her playful curiosity. Initially, keepers watched for signs of aggression and jealousy from the zoo's other two elephants, Watoto, an African elephant, and Bamboo, an Asian.
But the elder females quickly took to the new calf. They seemed protective, and at times excited by her arrival. Zoo records show Chai even tried to nurse from Bamboo.
Chai was noticeably mellow and even-tempered; records repeatedly refer to her as "calm" and "relaxed." She rarely resisted blood draws or baths.
Over time, Chai's age, docility, and an ovulation cycle that could be predicted with near-certainty three times a year, made her the zoo's best breeding candidate.
Preparations for her to tolerate these procedures started in 1988, when she was just shy of turning 9. Medical records document it as "A.I. Training." In 1992, she underwent her first procedure. The sperm donor was from Portland.
Since then, Chai has undergone at least 50 attempts, according to zoo records. It's possible the number could be higher; however, record-keeping during Chai's early years at the zoo was handwritten and typed and, therefore, inconsistent, zoo officials say.
This much is known: Since 2010, Chai has had a half-dozen inseminations. It costs about $5,000 each time, which includes shipping semen and flying a veterinarian in from out of state.
Zoo officials say they're intent on creating a multigenerational herd with a baby elephant.
Chai delivered once, after being sent across the country in 1998 to mate with a bull at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Animal Welfare Act, later filed a complaint against Dickerson for allegedly abusing Chai.
Dickerson neither admitted nor denied it, and settled by paying a $5,000 penalty.
Chai came back to Seattle, pregnant with Hansa, who was born on Nov. 3, 2000.
The baby was an instant hit; people lined up for hours to catch a glimpse of the adorable calf romping around the barn. Attendance tripled the first month; in her first year, overall attendance jumped 13 percent.
A contest to name her drew more than 27,000 entries. The winning name, Hansa, means "supreme happiness" in Thai.
In 2007, at 6 ½ years old, Hansa was found dead in the elephant barn after an eight-day illness.
A necropsy showed she'd suffered widespread vascular damage to various organs. Her liver had swollen to four times its normal size. About three weeks later, doctors determined she'd died from a previously unrecognized virus of elephant herpes.
Hawkes, the zoo's general curator, said she assumes all three elephants have at least one herpes virus, even though the animals repeatedly test negative for it. The virus can remain undetected unless symptoms are present, she said.
Hawkes isn't convinced that a baby would necessarily contract herpes anyway. And she and Bohmke say they are confident that if a new calf were to get sick, antiviral drugs could treat it.
So, she said, as long as Chai remains healthy, there's no reason to stop trying for a calf.
"The alternative would be for us to say 'Oh, (breeding) is too scary. We're not going to do this,'" Hawkes said. "That's a decision that we are no longer going to fulfill our mission of educating people and connecting people to elephants."
On June 3, the zoo learned the March insemination didn't take. Chai wasn't pregnant. Five days later, she underwent another AI.
The results are expected in September.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or email@example.com.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report and information from The Seattle Times archive was included.
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
Homes -- New Home Showcase
Your Opinion Matters
Take our survey and enter to win $100. Enter Now!