In captivity the elephant is entirely dependent on its caretakers. It also can — and does — kill those caretakers. More keepers are injured or killed by elephants than by any other animal in zoos and circuses. Yet even with the hard work and danger, Hromadka vowed she would be an elephant keeper even if she were not paid. Roocroft agreed that even if he didn’t have a family to feed, he would work for beer money. (The pay isn’t great anyway. Hromadka, with thirteen years’ experience, recently received a raise to ten dollars an hour. Roocroft, one of the highest paid zoo elephant supervisors, earns approximately $30,000 a year.)
Cha-Cha and Mary ambled toward us. “Prut-prut-prut-chirrup-chirrup,” the elephants made a low, suppressed sound with their lips. Cha-Cha stretched out her trunk toward Roocroft. Moist pink skin lines the interior of the trunk, which is ringed at its aperture with black hairs. The fingerlike projection wriggled at the end of the trunk, and her cool, wet trunk tip brushed my hand. She put her trunk in my palm, and her breath, exhaled out her trunk, was hot. The black sensory hairs at her trunk’s tip brushed my arm and tickled.
Twelve-year-old Connie, her delivery date then just four to six weeks away, looked little different from other cows in the herd. At birth an elephant calf may weight more than 200 pounds, yet Connie didn’t bulge. Her ankles were swollen, as are those of many a mammal mother nearing her delivery date, and she trod slowly. As we watched, she went laboriously down on her back legs and then turned to one side and lay down in the dusty yard. Nineteen-year-old Carol quickly joined Connie and stood over her, shading her from the sun.
Carol had become protective of Connie in the last months: “If Connie starts to roar,” said Roocroft, “Carol is right there.”
In 1974, Asian elephants were declared endangered, and since then, only nine have legally entered the U.S. Today there are 365 Asian elephants in the United States, in zoos, parks, circuses, and with private owners. (An Asian elephant sold within the United States may cost as much as $45,000.) Of these 365, only thirty-two are bulls. In order to replenish zoo and circus herds, captive breeding has become necessary.
Portland’s Washington Park Zoo, whose twenty-five-year-old breeding program is the oldest in the United States, has produced twenty-four live births and nineteen survivors, several of whom are now grandmothers in the Portland herd. Other U.S. institutions currently breeding Asian elephants in captivity include the Miami Metro-Zoo with three live births, the Bronx Zoo, the Houston Zoo, Tulsa Zoo, Tampa’s Bush Gardens, and Florida’s Circus World. In 1984 the San Diego Wild Animal Park opened a $360,000 state-of-the-art breeding facility: a barn for ten cows that included a maternity stall; a separate barn for a resident bull; a keeper’s apartment adjacent to the maternity stall, where keepers and veterinarians can conduct twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance of expectant and new mothers and have quick access for specialized care.
Connie is their first pregnant Asian elephant. But because of her youth, she was not slated to be bred first. The program began with Carol and with then-thirty-year-old Cookie. For three months, keepers collected blood and urine samples from the two cows. (Long before the breeding program began, the cows were taught to defecate before shows. When urine samples began to be taken, the cows were easily trained to urinate into a bucket. The command used, said Hromadka, is “Pissy, pissy.”) Sample analyses led park veterinarians to recommend Carol for the first elephant mother, and her keepers then took daily blood and urine samples to pinpoint when she would ovulate.
In the wild, breeding takes care of itself. Had the park’s Asian cows stayed in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, or Burma, and had their lives been without catastrophe, they would have been born into a family of six or seven elephants. The female calf would have remained a part of that unit for her lifetime of sixty, even seventy years.
Elephants form matriarchal family units, and among the females, a pecking order exists. The lead elephant, or matriarch, is usually the herd’s oldest and knows where and in what seasons to find food. By virtue of this knowledge, she is herd leader and social arbiter. When a bull calf reaches puberty, he leaves the group to join a bachelor herd or to live alone. Males will sometimes be a mile away, close enough to the cows to know — by smell — when a cow is in estrus. Only when a cow is standing heat is the mature bull allowed to enter the matriarchal herd.
In most mammals, vagina and urethra open separately into a shallow vestibule. The female elephant’s vagina and urethra open into a urinogenital canal, three feet long. This canal opens at the vulva in front of the hind legs. Normally, the elephant’s vulva faces forward, but during copulation, it shifts downward and to the rear.
An elephant’s penis in erection is proportionate in length to the vaginal canal. When the bull runs, chasing a cow, if his penis is erect, it will stick straight out, swing like a pendulum, and bounce off his back legs. Yet even with its great length, the penis does not reach the cervix. For spermatozoa to enter the uterus, large ejaculate volume is required. An elephant produces more than a quart.
Artificial insemination — “A.I.” — is made difficult in part by the vaginal canal’s length. Roocroft explained, “A.I. is too invasive. To do an A.I., you have to spread an elephant’s legs with chains. You don’t know what effect that has on them, having them spread-legged. I’m a great believer in not doing what you don’t have to. What if you end up with an elephant that has gone haywire for a reason you’ve created?”
In late 1984, both Cookie and Carol were introduced to the 11,000-pound Ranchipur in the bull’s separate yard. “It seemed,” said Hromadka, “That Carol and Ranchi had the better thing going, so we kept them together for over six months. Their relationship seemed to develop, but then it went the other way. They got bored with each other. Days passed, and they ignored each other. Then some days, Rachi would pursue her. They would spar. Carol would become frightened, and the more fear she showed, the more Ranchi grew to dislike her. Still, he began to try to mount her. But by then, Carol was adamant. She refused him and ultimately became afraid of him.