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.”
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.”