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Pittsburgh Zoo Cares for Preemie Elephant Calf

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Seeni, one of three African Elephants rescued from Botswana in 2011 by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, delivered her calf one month early. The premature little female was born on May 31 at the International Conservation Center’s Maternal Care Barn.

“To say that we were shocked when we walked into the barn that morning is understatement,” says Willie Theison, Elephant Manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and International Conservation Center. “Seeni wasn’t expected to calve until the end of June, so to walk in in the morning and see this tiny little elephant attempting to stand on wobbly legs was a total surprise.”

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4_Baby Elephant 1Photo Credits: Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Keepers immediately began using towels to warm the calf. “Our first concern was to ensure that the calf was ok,” says Dr. Barbara Baker, President & CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “Being born one month early, she weighted only 184 pounds, which is 52 pounds below the median birth weight of a calf born full-term.” Normal elephant calf weighs between 207-290 pounds at birth.

After a physical exam of both mother and calf, it was determined that Seeni had not begun producing the milk needed to feed the little calf, so Theison immediately began teaching the calf to bottle feed, using cow calf bottles.

It is very important in the first 48 hours that the elephant calf receives colostrum through milk to stimulate its immune system. Normally the calf would nurse and mom would pass along the important antibodies. Cow colostrum was used initially to feed the calf, and then the switch was made to African Elephant milk that was shipped in for the daily feedings.

Theison knew that there was a possibility that Seeni might not bond with her calf. “Seeni was orphaned at an early age due to the culling of her parents in South Africa,” says Theison. “Her only companions were Thandi and Sukuri, so she never had a bonding relationship with her mother. She doesn’t understand how to care for a young calf.”

Seeni delivered her first calf while at the Okavango Delta in Botswana and not knowing what to do, she rejected her calf. “We were hoping now that she was older and had already had one calf, that she might want to bond with this one,” says Dr. Baker. “But though she was interested in the calf, she made no attempt to care for her.”

Theison and Dr. Baker were faced with a tough decision: should staff continue to bottle feed the little calf and keep her at the International Conservation Center or move her to the Pittsburgh Zoo, where she would be integrated into a herd environment of mothers, aunts, and sisters, which is very important.

“This is not a decision that you ever want to have to make,” says Willie Theison. “But the health and welfare of the calf was our top priority. We made the decision to transport the calf back to Pittsburgh, and introduce her to our herd here.”

“Our first priority is to make sure the calf remains healthy,” says Dr. Baker. “We will continue to bottle feed her for as long as necessary. We are also watching her closely for any signs of infection so we can react quickly. She is tough but she is facing a long road ahead.”

The other elephants are very curious and watch the little calf from the next room. “Once she is bigger and stronger, we will begin introducing her to the herd,” says Theison. “I know they are very curious about her so that is a good sign.”

The calf will not be on exhibit, or available for viewing, for several more months. But the Zoo will be providing updates via social media and their website:

Seeni’s calf is the fifth successful African Elephant birth at the Pittsburgh Zoo &PPG Aquarium. Jackson, the Zoo’s bull elephant, fathered all five calves.

“At just one week old, this little calf is already having a major impact,” says Dr. Barbara Baker, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo. “She is introducing new genetics into an aging African Elephant population in North America. A first step in efforts to save this magnificent species.”

The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest land animal on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by larger ears.

Elephants are herbivores and eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a single day.

The African Elephant was classified as “Endangered” as early as the late 90s. In 2004, their official IUCN classification was changed to “Vulnerable”.