World's first elephant midwife?

Vet's job is to encourage births among captive elephants.

Published May 25, 2000 7:33PM (EDT)

In the past several months, Dennis Schmitt's team has brought one African
and one Asian elephant into the world, the first-ever products of artificial
insemination of elephants.

Schmitt didn't start out to be an elephant midwife. Growing up on a dairy
farm outside Springfield, Mo., he had no idea that someday he would be
flying all over the globe to circuses and zoos, cradling a container of
elephant semen in his lap.

A veterinarian at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Schmitt heads one of
the largest elephant-breeding programs in the country. He also teaches
veterinary medicine at a nearby university. But what he's most proud of is
his role in artificially inseminating African and Asian elephants, and
delivering their 400-pound babies.

Schmitt has delivered a total of 14 elephant babies in his career. He must
be a patient guy because the gestation period is quite long. The first
baby, an Asian named Haji, was born after the mother's 674-day pregnancy.
"It was an amazing experience," Schmitt told the Associated Press.

Elephants have many problems reproducing, according to Schmitt, partly
because there aren't many of the creatures left on the planet. African
elephants number about 500,000, with 5,000 in captivity. But there are only
50,000 or so Asian elephants, with 10,000 in captivity. Most Asian elephants
are past their reproductive age, so accelerating their birthrate is
especially important.

Schmitt has developed a good eye for a healthy potential elephant mom.
Teenagers and those in their 20s usually are best, because elephants over 30
can develop tumors and ovarian cysts.

"Are their reproductive tracts in good physical shape?" asks Schmitt. "Are
their blood cycles regular? Are they socially mature enough to handle
becoming a mother? These are the types of things we are looking for in a
good mom."

Traditionally, zoos have had little success in breeding elephants, in part
because they're not equipped to house the aggressive adult males. And
transporting the males is difficult and expensive. Schmitt and his team have
found success using artificial insemination and employing ultrasound to
determine the females' reproductive cycles. The group is currently working
on freezing elephant semen for travel.

Whether it's a result of the faint aroma of the semen he carries or not,
many of the mother elephants recognize him when he returns to a zoo or
circus, Schmitt says. Occasionally he's greeted by an elephant raising its
tail and defecating.

"I'm just happy that they remembered me," he says.

By Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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