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Tusk Love 

An elephant's birth raises questions about breeding practices

Wednesday, Jul 24 1996
If elephants smoked, Smokey would be passing out cigars.
The Oakland Zoo's 24-year-old bull elephant recently became the talk of the zoological grapevine when he sired Kijana, one of the very few African elephants born in captivity in North America and the first in a dozen years. Although it's hard to tell what the birth meant to the first-time father, it has clearly benefited the birthplace itself.

Since Kijana's unexpected arrival last November, the once-destitute Oakland Zoo has enjoyed a flood of attention, from other zoological institutions and from the national media. Rejected by his mother, he's the first African calf to be raised from birth by human handlers. Now, with the newborn finally settling into a stable routine, the zoo is turning its attention to papa Smokey's future as a stud.

"We now know we have a bull that has proven, viable semen," says the zoo's director, Dr. Joel Parrott.

Parrott says Smokey will continue to breed with Lisa and Donna, the two females with whom he shares his simulated habitat. Three weeks after Lisa gave birth to the 190-pound Kijana -- "little boy" in Swahili -- Donna also gave birth, but her calf had to be euthanized due to irreparable hip damage. "Since he was going to be 14,000 pounds someday," Parrott says, "the prognosis was very poor."

Given the African elephant's gestation period of 22 months, Parrott is assuming both females will give birth again in about two years. "The clock has started," he says. This time, the zoo's curators intend to "push very hard to have both cows raise their own young." The zoo is already preparing by doubling the size of its elephant habitat.

A little over a decade after being condemned as one of the 10 worst zoos in the country, the revitalized Oakland Zoo has become a front-runner in progressive animal husbandry. The zoo subscribes to a method of elephant management known as "protected contact," in which interaction with the animals is minimized; Parrott, a veterinarian who has been the zoo's director since 1985, says with a little exasperation that the relatively new practice has been slow to catch on.

More standard and widespread is the ancient Asian practice of dominating elephants through hands-on training, known as "free" contact. "The better trained they are," says David Blasko, elephant manager at Vallejo's Marine World, "means we can give them more stimulus. ... We try to teach them things, like you would a child, to enhance their life."

Advocates argue that the major advantage of free contact is improved health care: Handlers can command the animal to submit to routine procedures, as opposed to simply asking it to raise a leg or kneel down. "There are going to be times when the animal is not motivated by food," Blasko says.

"If there was a serious medical condition," Parrott acknowledges, "it's very possible we couldn't do anything about it." On the other hand, the director says, "there is the question about the good of the elephant when he's not in trouble. And most of the time, he's not in trouble."

"The gist of free contact is that if you go in [an enclosed area] with an elephant, you have to be dominant or you're going to get killed," Parrott explains. In order for trainers to establish dominance, adds the doctor, the prodding and poking of free contact can be "pretty brutal stuff."

It was under the free contact system that a hormonally enraged Smokey fatally broke the neck of an Oakland Zoo trainer in 1991. Months after the fatality, Oakland followed a handful of other zoos, instituting the protected contact system and building a so-called restraint chute, an enclosed pen that provides more safety to handlers during health care.

The soft-spoken, businesslike Parrott makes no apologies for Smokey's violent past. "There are no bad elephants," he says. "In Africa, they are the dominant animal."

To Parrott, positive reinforcement is far more compassionate than the enforced training of free contact. He points to the conditioning of marine mammals: Dolphins, he says, can be taught to voluntarily "beach themselves ... so they can urinate in a cup and give a urine sample." Given a little incentive, the highly intelligent elephant, he says, should be similarly easy to train.

To Parrott, the practice of protected contact is unassailable. "But for some reason, you'd think this was the most controversial thing."

What may provide still more controversy are the zoo's tentative plans to breed Smokey with females from other zoos. One option would be to host visiting African elephant cows, with whom Smokey would be familiarized over the course of several weeks.

"You can't disrupt his social life too quickly," Parrott explains. "It's a major undertaking. That's where free contact can be much faster, because they can command an elephant to accept another elephant." Without a monitor, there can be no guarantee that Smokey would not harm the visitor: "The minute you drop that gate, you can't do anything about it."

Another option would be to collect Smokey's semen and prepare it for artificial insemination -- a solution that had been suggested even before the powerful bull became a father.

"The very day that Kijana was born," says Parrott, "I received a call asking to attempt to collect semen from Smokey."

To do so would be a delicate operation, to say the least: The elephant must be willing to have his prostate massaged, which requires a handler to reach into the animal's rectum, "up to the shoulder," Parrott says. "You do that with cattle all the time. In cattle you use an electro-ejaculator, which causes not only an erection but ejaculation. In horses they use an artificial vagina and a teaser mare to get the male aroused." For elephants, the particulars of the practice are still being debated.

Smokey, Parrott says, would not be forced to cooperate. "If he's not willing," he says, "we won't do it. We'll take it one step at a time, through training by a reward system. For instance, if you can touch him around his prepuce [foreskin], he'll get rewarded until he's so used to it that it's no big deal."

Parrott says other bull elephants have been trained to submit to the treatment: "The dis-advantage is that Smokey could in short order become overrepresented," he says.

One of the director's colleagues, reproductive expert Dennis Schmidt, a consultant for several zoos in the Midwest, agrees that overbreeding Smokey could pose a problem. However, he suggests that the scarcity of African elephant births in captivity is a situation that's equally vexing. "Having too many calves from one bull could be a problem," he says by phone, "but having none is a problem as well."

Countering that perspective is Pat Derby, head of the Galt-based Performance Animal Welfare Society. Although Derby lauds Parrott for his "responsible" approach, she argues that breeding programs of any kind only lead to future generations of captivity or forced performance. "It's unfortunate that Smokey has proven to be a breeder," she says. "Dr. Parrott is now stuck in a breeding program because of the zoo community."

While such biological pros and cons are being debated, the Oakland Zoo will let nature take its course with its own small herd. "We've found that if you let their biorhythms be what they are," Parrott says, "it's worked." Still, like a proud father himself, he displays a certain gratification in fielding the growing demand for Smokey's services.

Though he's not passing out cigars.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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