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Newborn elephant mortality debated

Published in the SYRACUSE POST-STANDARD 6/11/06: 

Death of calf at Syracuse zoo adds  to questions, concerns over captive breeding. Sunday, June 11, 2006 By  Mark Weiner Staff writer

Supporters and opponents of programs to breed Asian elephants in captivity agree on a couple of things: Last week's delivery of a dead calf in Syracuse was a tragedy. And it's something that happens too often.

The 330-pound female was the seventh of 12 Asian elephants born since 2000 at zoos and wildlife parks in North America to be delivered dead or die within days from birth complications, according to Mike Keele, director of an international breeding program for the endangered species.

The dead calf was delivered surgically Thursday at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo after it became stuck in the birth canal of its mother, Romani, 29. Romani was doing well and continuing to eat and drink at a normal rate Saturday, said Sarah Fedele, a zoo spokeswoman.

"More than anything else, a tragedy like this is what animal rights folks are using to support their call to close zoos," Keele said Friday. "I don't think there's any science to support their theory. The experts can't really decide what is causing this."

Of the six deaths before last week, three were stillborn calves and three died within two days of birth, said Keele, chairman of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Program for Asian elephants. Those numbers don't include the death of Kedar in August at the Syracuse zoo. Kedar was born healthy, but died four days later after falling into a pool.

Dr. Elliot Katz, a Cornell University-trained veterinarian, suggests he knows the reason for the birth problems.

"Why it's happening is all common sense," said Katz, founder and president of In Defense of Animals, an organization based in San Rafael, Calif.

"For an elephant to be ready for a birth, they need to be in good  shape," Katz said. "Elephants that are kept in zoos are not in the best of  shape."

Katz said lack of exercise, obesity and the unnatural conditions in captivity contribute to a high rate of stillbirths and birth complications.

His group tracked both Asian and African baby elephant deaths in the past five years. The Syracuse calf was the 13th to die through stillbirths or other birth complications. Three mothers also died as a result of the birth problems, according to the group.

Katz said other conditions that contribute to the deaths are the practices of confining zoo elephants to concrete surfaces, chaining mother elephants by three or four legs during labor and delivery, and isolating laboring elephants from the rest of the captive herd.

Chuck Doyle, director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, said elephant obesity and lack of exercise can play a big role in maternal health. But few of the claims from animal rights groups are true at the Syracuse zoo,  he said.

"Sometimes, we have a tendency to overfeed our elephants in captivity and that's not good," Doyle said. "The diet we give them is a lot richer than what they eat in the wild. So it's a real challenge to keep our elephants thin. But we've been pretty successful at doing that."

Doyle also said the zoo places a priority on exercise.

"We here not only walk our elephants every day, but we use exercise to keep them fit," Doyle said, noting that the elephants go through vigorous daily routines with their handlers.

While it is true that laboring mothers are chained by their legs, Doyle said it protects the babies from being hurt by a misstep from the mother. At Syracuse births, other elephants are always brought in to watch and offer support to the mother, he said. Romani's 9-year-old daughter, Kirina, stayed by her during her labor last week.

The Syracuse zoo has recorded eight elephant births since 1990, including three live calves for Romani. Last week's calf was the  zoo's third to be delivered dead.

Doyle said he suspects the reason for the birth mortality rate has something to do with the number of first-time mothers. "You've got to look at differences with first-time moms and moms with multiple babies," he said. "First-time mothers in all species do not have as good a track record with successful deliveries."

Keele, who is also deputy director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, agrees with Doyle. The Oregon Zoo has produced 27 elephant births since 1962, the most in North America.

"We found first-time mothers that were older had more of a risk," he said. "But we found animals that had more than one calf were at less of a risk."

Keele said no reliable studies of elephant birth mortality have been done in the wild. In Defense of Animals cited studies of wild African elephants, larger than their Asian cousins.

Katz urged that Romani not be bred again, noting she had been given massage and labor-inducing drugs in each of her four deliveries.

"It was clear that when the previous births required outside interference, then they should have known that would happen again," Katz said. "All I can say is they should never breed her again. It would be a tragic mistake. All you are doing is endangering the life of the elephant and her baby."

Doyle said the assistance was simply to speed the delivery so Romani would have less pain during labor.

Doyle said it is too soon to decide whether Romani will breed again. But he said there is no question about the zoo's commitment to the elephant program.

Leaders at the Onondaga County-owned zoo are considering a $4.5 million construction project that would build a new indoor sleeping quarters and an exercise building for its elephant herd, which now numbers four.

Doyle said it is critical for breeding to continue because fewer than 52,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. About 500 live at zoos and wildlife parks in North America, but that population is dying off faster than it can reproduce.

Mark Weiner can be reached at  [email protected] or  315-470-2274.

2006 The Post-Standard

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