One way to think about the Asian elephant problem is to consider the case of Shanti, the Houston Zoo’s 24-year-old pregnant pachyderm. For starters, she is considered one of approximately 15 reproductively viable Asian females currently on the continent—there are even fewer males. For another, “elephants have a two-year pregnancy, then they take another two years to nurse, and then it takes another year for them to get pregnant again,” says Martina Stevens, the Zoo’s elephant manager. “You’re looking at a five-year window between calves.”
Oh, also: during these last critical weeks of confinement, Shanti is being poked and prodded and forced to submit to 24-hour surveillance. Zoo officials need to be ready should Shanti suddenly go into labor. Postpartum mother elephants have been known to stomp their young to death.
It’s this last fear that has brought us to a video monitoring room inside the Zoo’s McNair Asian Elephant Habitat, also known as the unofficial headquarters of the Birth Watch program, which since December has had four video cameras trained on Shanti and employed 50 volunteers to keep watch on the monitors.
“Since we can’t ask them how they’re feeling, we have to know what sort of behavior is normal in the lead-up to the birth, so that we also know what is not normal,” says Daryl Hoffman, the zoo’s curator of large mammals, noting that volunteers become intimately familiar with even the most mundane aspects of elephant behavior. “It’s similar to a human birth, except that you can talk to a human,” he continues, which makes us wonder whether Hoffman has ever tried talking to a woman giving birth.
Be that as it may, it occurs to us that it can’t be easy for the Birthers to stare at black-and-white images of an 8,000-pound elephant for four solid hours. In fact, it would seem to require an almost Sally Struthers-esque commitment to the animal kingdom. Most volunteers seem to view their stewardship as a privilege, however, happily toggling through Shanti’s various aspects like photographers looking for a model’s best side, taking copious notes all the while.
They watch for the obvious, of course—the eating, the drinking, the lifting of a tail or leg. They listen for Shanti’s vocalizations too, observe her sleeping, watch her pooping. The slightest change in behavior—whether, say, Shanti’s urine comes out in a steady stream or in dribbles—can be an important omen.
“There you go, sweetheart,” coos a volunteer during our visit. We look at the screen just in time to catch several softball-size chunks of dung drop from Shanti’s back side. “Such a good girl, Shanti, such a good girl!” We find ourselves similarly caught up in the excitement, as can happen when long stretches of tedium suddenly give way to something intense.
“I wouldn’t call it intense—I’m watching an elephant eat,” says volunteer Della White, a few hours into her shift. “But it’s more intense than what I normally do at the Zoo, which is data entry.”
And no one disputes the importance of the work. So popular are Asian elephants among zoo-goers, and so depleted their ranks, eight or nine births must occur across North American zoos each year in order for the population to be self-sustaining. Last year there were just five.
But here, as elsewhere, Houston appears to be an anomaly. Shanti’s baby, due in mid-January, looks to be the third calf born to the Houston Zoo in the last four years.