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Romping with the herd

Rose-Tu's pregnancy means the Oregon Zoo will add a calf to Packy's world
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Mother Rose-Tu (right) and son Samudra, 3, have bonded since some rough patches early on. Keepers at the Oregon Zoo say the mother tried to trample the son, confused about what to make of the new little elephant in the herd. Rose-Tu is pregnant again, with the offspring due in late 2012.

Somebody is pregnant - again. And, oh, sometime next year we might be able to tell. Being about 7,000 pounds herself, the Oregon Zoo's Rose-Tu won't show much baby bump.

Usually the only sign of pregnancy for an Asian elephant is the baby's movement inside the mother, and some mammary development. No hot flashes, no morning sickness, no sore back.

Rose-Tu, 17 and a pachyderm, might not even be bothered by it, being that the proud mama is taking care of 3-year-old Samudra.

Then, after about 22 months of pregnancy - yikes - out pops a calf in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 pounds.

If all goes well, Rose-Tu's offspring in late 2012 will be the eighth Asian elephant at the Oregon Zoo, and her second after the birth of Samudra.

News of her pregnancy was greeted with delight at the Oregon Zoo, which plans expansion of the elephant exhibit to accommodate the current herd and provide room for more through natural breeding. A 2008 bond measure allows the zoo to expand the elephant habitat to six acres, up from 1 1/2 acres, and the zoo has also been searching for expansive land, examining 240 acres near Roslyn Lake in Clackamas County.

The Asian elephant population was put on hold because of space, which increased with the passing of other elephants. Then, Tusko strolled in on breeding loan in 2005, and within several months he was smitten by Rose-Tu, and the two conceived Samudra.

Again, the good folks at the Oregon Zoo just hope everything goes well the second time around for the baby of Rose-Tu and Tusko. Keepers will watch her weight and force her to exercise.

'We're going to keep her exercising, so she's in good shape when it comes time to deliver,' says Mike Keele, director of elephant habitats. 'That's important. Calves have died in birth because their mothers weren't strong enough to deliver.'

Auntie Shine

The mating of Rose-Tu and Tusko was prearranged, as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for Asian Elephants called for the two to breed for sustainable population purposes.

Other elephants won't treat Rose-Tu much differently during the pregnancy, says Bob Lee, elephant curator.

'It's more when the calf comes,' he says. 'Auntie (Sung-Surin or 'Shine') takes over the mothering duties so (Rose-Tu) can get a break. Shine disciplined Samudra, does more the teaching of right from wrong; Rose-Tu is more protective.

'When he learned how to swim, she was right at the edge of the water watching. When he got into a problem, she'd run down and push him out of the water. Chendra, the other female, is like a playmate with the kid; she'll let him climb on her back and throw him off. Chendra has no children, and she doesn't do a lot of aunting behavior.'

Oh, but the 3,500-pound Chendra's time may be coming. She's 18, and from the wild.

'Hopefully as soon as possible,' Lee says. 'She goes out with the males, out with Rama, which she has been recommended to breed with. She'll also go out with Tusko sometimes.'

Almost 40 years old, Tusko stands 10 feet tall, weighs about 14,000 pounds and has a massive trunk.

Rama is the son of Packy, the soon-to-be 50-year-old elder statesman of the zoo's Asian elephants. The 28-year-old Rama is a wee-bit smaller at 9,000 pounds, and keepers say he is apparently more the artist type. Literally, he's a painter.

Meanwhile, Packy struts around in outside areas, and stands for everybody to see in the indoor area, as keepers rotate elephants through different environments. He's still in good health, Keele says, and should be around to experience the Zoo's bigger home and then maybe the out-of-town pasture in the works.

Matriarchal herd

Zoo expansion should be started in 2013 and be done by 2015.

It'll be interesting to watch Packy then, because he has basically been trained to know when it's time for feeding and where it'll be. All he knows is routine and confines, since being the first of about 25 Asian elephants born at the Zoo in Southwest Portland in 1962. In the expanded, six-acre environment, elephants will have to figure out such things on their own, Lee says.

'It'll be using their natural behaviors to search out things for themselves,' he adds. '(Packy) will figure it out really quickly, even though this has been his whole world. He's very comfortable here.

'These new experiences may make him nervous at first, but he'll overcome that and start investigating quickly. Because of their intelligence, (elephants) adapt very quickly.'

But, all eyes at the Zoo will be on Rose-Tu in the coming months to see how the mother takes to her second pregnancy and offspring.

After the birth of Samudra, she nearly trampled the little fella. She didn't know what the heck was going on, having not experienced birth or the introduction of a new member of the herd.

Lee says Rose-Tu is an experienced mom now, and she'll know how to react this time - meaning, she probably won't try to trample her baby.

Part of the Zoo's mission is to raise and keep healthy elephants, Lee adds.

'We want them to live as natural a life as possible,' he says. 'See calves being born, raise their own calves, see them socially develop.

'The goal is to form a self-sustaining matriarchal herd.'