PORTLAND, Ore. - A mother elephant is warming to her baby at the Oregon Zoo, allowing the 286-pound male calf to nurse, zoo officials said Monday.
That was a stark contrast to the mother's behavior following the birth Saturday, when she trampled the infant and was separated from it for the safety of the calf. The mother, 14-year-old Rose-Tu, also appeared to act aggressively to the baby during subsequent interactions over the weekend. Officials believe she may have just been confused since she had not seen a birth before.
But zoo officials reported Monday that the pair had been together since Sunday at 5 p.m. and Rose-Tu was much calmer. The calf is nursing on either side of her, and the mother has even been lifting her front leg and tucking the calf under her, "almost like a hug," according to Mike Keele, the zoo's deputy director.
"At one point, the calf was in the wrong place and Rose-Tu gently nudged him with her trunk, repositioning her legs so he could get better access for nursing," Keele said in a press release. "She seems especially calm around him, and when he nurses, it looks like Rose is almost sleeping, she's so relaxed -- it's a very good sign."
Then, later in the afternoon Monday, the two elephants fell asleep standing next to each other, and eventually the calf went to sleep underneath his mother's legs, zoo officials said. Rose-Tu then began checking out the calf with her trunk and did not show any signs of aggression.
The zoo gave the following additional information in a press release:
The calf continues to get stronger and is a "good eater" according to Keele. When Rose-Tu appears too tired to nurse, keepers have been supplementing the baby's diet with elephant formula, delivered via a 12-ounce beer bottle with a large, specially crafted nipple.
The baby elephant is taking in about 10 to 12 liters a day, according to Dr. Lisa Harrenstien, zoo veterinarian. About two-thirds of that amount is milk from Rose-Tu, and the other third is formula.
"From the behavioral signs we've seen thus far, we're very hopeful that the reintroduction will be successful," Keele said.
Rose-Tu, born Aug. 31, 1994, was the most recent elephant born at the zoo. Rose-Tu is a popular elephant within the herd and with her keepers. She is always looking to tease her herd mates and shares a strong friendship with Chendra, who is nearly the same age. Rose-Tu is the second smallest elephant in the herd, weighing about 7,600 pounds. She conceived in late 2006.
The Oregon Zoo has a renowned breeding program for endangered Asian elephants. More than 25 elephants have been born at the zoo, beginning with Packy in 1962.
As the infant grows older, father Tusko - a 13,500-pound, 36-year-old Asian elephant - will be introduced and allowed to interact with him, as well. Tusko arrived at the zoo in June 2005 on a breeding loan. He has successfully sired three calves in the past -- two while living in Canada and one in California.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for Asian elephants recommended that Rose-Tu be bred with Tusko. The AZA, of which the Oregon Zoo is an accredited member, strives to maintain a sustainable population of the endangered elephants in North America. Currently, birth rates are lower than necessary to do so. With few bulls and low birth rates -- combined with an aging female population -- the North American elephant population is at of risk becoming extinct.
In the late 1990s, scientists warned zoos that unless a reproductive management program was undertaken, North America was in danger of not sustaining a viable elephant population. Statistics indicate that if females do not become pregnant by the age of 25, their ability to reproduce is severely diminished.
An endangered species, Asian elephants are represented by an estimated 38,000 to 51,000 individuals living in fragmented populations in the wild. Agriculture, deforestation and conflict with humans pose a constant threat to wild Asian elephants.