By zoo standards, it was a royal birth, with all the anticipation worthy of a new prince.
Meet Scotty, the first elephant born at the Louisville Zoo, the first elephant born in Kentucky for that matter.
Scotty’s arrival one year ago caused quite a stir, bringing national attention to the zoo and thousands of visitors wanting to see the 285-pound newborn. But few realize his birth was planned years ago.
With the population of both Asian and African elephants devastated around the world due to poaching, captive elephant births are seen as perhaps the only viable way of maintaining both species. And while baby elephants are becoming more common, it’s still a relatively new science.
It was certainly new to the elephant keepers in Louisville.
“I’ll admit, I was scared to death,” says Dave Campbell, supervisor of the elephant area. “Each step of the pregnancy worried me. I mean, that was like my kid being born!”
While any birth can be tricky, elephant births present a unique worry: if the baby is too large or in the wrong position, a vet cannot reach in to help or turn the baby. Unlike animals such as cattle or horses, there simply isn’t room.
Of everyone involved—all the elephant keepers and the zoo’s veterinarians—only Mikki, the mother, seemed unconcerned. An African elephant, Mikki was chosen as a potential mother based on her ideal age, temperament, and good health. In preparation for being artificially inseminated, her estrus cycle was monitored over a period of years: the window of opportunity for breeding an elephant lasts only a short time, and it was crucial to be able to pinpoint when Mikki was the most fertile.
It only took two inseminations to impregnate Mikki, and despite the medical monitors and people surrounding her during the process, she handled it all with great aplomb.
During the nearly two-year pregnancy, Mikki was closely watched—the goal was to keep her well-exercised and prevent her from gaining any more than 500 pounds. Dave and the other elephant keepers—Mark Stocker, Steve Burton, Brian Hettinger, Dr. Roy Burns, and Supervisor of Animal Training Jane Anne Franklin—kept a 24-hour vigil. Mikki rewarded them on March 18, 2007, with a bouncing baby boy.
“This was brand new for the vet team,” says Dr. Burns, “but we were fortunate because we were prepared. We’d made list after list of supplies, of what to do should any problem arise. The night of the birth, we separated into teams, each person had a job to do. Birthing is a high-risk time for the baby and the mother, but we had a good team working together.”
Dr. Burns notes that the bonding between a mother and a newborn can also be risky—first-time elephant mothers have been known to be aggressive toward their baby. Scotty was separated from Mikki immediately after his birth just in case, but the only time Mikki ever got excited was when her water broke. From then on, she took it all in stride.
It was several hours before Scotty nursed, and though that’s normal, the team decided to help him along.
“I filled a large syringe with milk and squirted it into Scotty’s mouth,” says Dave, “and it was like a light went on and he thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I need!'”
The team was lucky to have prominent elephant researchers at the birth. Scott Riddle, who operates Riddle’s Elephant Sanctuary in Arkansas and mentor to Dave, has overseen several successful elephant births.
Scott kept vigil with the other elephant handlers, and later said, “The birth was very well planned and organized, and should be used as an example for any facility expecting a baby elephant.”
Another team member was Dr. Dennis Schmitt of Missouri State University, considered a world-renowned expert on elephant reproduction.
“During the labor and delivery, there are several concerns for any first-time mom,” says Dr. Schmitt. “However, Mikki was well-prepared by her caretakers, Scotty was delivered uneventfully to the delight of everyone involved, and Mikki rapidly became a great mom.”
Even then, however, life didn’t return to normal for the elephant keepers, especially Dave. Baby Scotty was several weeks old before Dave could say, with a smile, “I’m finally going home at night, and I only call in once or twice a night.”
And lest Scotty thought life would be all fun and games, his training began right from the start.
“He’s been handled from day one,” says Dave. “The rule is, if we touch him, he’s not to run over us, he’s to follow us and respect our space.” It’s simple math, Dave says: better to train Scotty at 300 pounds than when he’s 2,000 pounds.
By handling Scotty at a young age, says Jane Anne Franklin, “He’s ‘learning how to learn,’ how to communicate. We’re building a relationship.” When Scotty was just weeks old, she says, “He could read human body language, he knew humans were part of the herd.”
At only three months old, Scotty had already learned a lot of things. He discovered he loved his daily bath, and although he obediently lay down when Dave told him to, he wiggled in anticipation of the power washer spraying him with water, letting loose with a tremendous trumpeting heard throughout the zoo.
“He’d let me do this all day,” says Dave.
Scotty had also learned to lift his legs when Dave asked him, for his feet to be inspected, and followed Dave on walks around the zoo, without Mikki.
Thanks to the bonding he had with Dave, Scotty wasn’t bothered by being separated from his mother. And should Scotty ever become sick, Dave needed to know Scotty could be apart from Mikki to be medically treated.
By August, Scotty weighed in at 600 pounds, right on schedule according to Dave, and was learning to be respectful around his “auntie” Punch, a female Asian elephant at the zoo.
“All this may not seem like a lot right now, but mostly what Scotty is learning is patience,” says Jane Anne. “He’s just learning his ABCs now, and doing things like standing still for X-rays will make him a manageable bull when he’s an adult.”
But Scotty is still a little boy, after all, and finds enough mischief to keep himself entertained: Punch was fun to tease until she put Scotty in his place, the electric wire around the elephant enclosure had to be reinforced when Scotty learned he could crawl under it, and the elephant pool had to be fenced in to keep Scotty from falling in.
Interest in Scotty by the public has yet to flag, so the zoo has held several events in his honor. After he was born, the zoo held a “name the baby elephant” contest: 7,000 entries were received. The zoo hosted Scotty Days, in which anyone with the name Scotty or Scott was given discounted admission. Scotty found time to be photographed for a national photo contest, procuring an honorable mention for photographer Nick Bonura. Scotty became so popular—and photogenic—he even made the cover of the Louisville phone book. And during a photo op for local media when he was 6 months old, Scotty led the way around the enclosure during the elephant parade.
The year-long celebration of Scotty’s arrival culminated in a big community birthday party at the zoo with Scotty enjoying his own special birthday cake. Scotty then showed off all his training to his well-wishers—all 1,030 pounds of him.
Dave and all the caretakers are quite proud of Scotty, as well they should be, but admit he can be a handful. As Dave says, “He’s super healthy, super independent, and he’s all boy. Mom’s gotta keep up with him all the time.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Louisville Zoo
1100 Trevilian Way
Louisville, KY 40213