Martina Stevens is the zoo’s elephant manager.
Inside the elephant barn, she grabs a juicy log from a banana tree and tosses it to Shanti and her three-year-old son Baylor.
“Shanti, speak! Good girl, speak! Alright. Good, Baylor.”
Elephant pregnancies are the longest of any animal, lasting 22 or even 24 months.
Zookeepers and volunteers are now watching around the clock for any signs of labor in Shanti.
“She might swap her tail, lift her legs, maybe she can’t get as comfortable at night. Oftentimes too, you’ll see her lift her tail like she’s straining a little bit.”
Like elephants in the wild, Shanti will give birth standing up, and gravity will help the calf drop out of her.
Baylor, Shanti’s three-year-old male calf, gets a check-up. Photo courtesy of Baylor College of Medicine.
The calf might weigh 350 pounds or more.
Daryl Hoffman is in charge of large mammals at the Houston Zoo.
He says an elephant birth is as dramatic as you might imagine.
“So we’re in the stall with her, the water breaks, you see a bulge beneath the tail. That’s calf moving over the pelvic rim. But we’re in position, we’re ready.”
If this were in the wild, other elephants would immediately circle around the calf and protect it from the mother.
That’s because a mother elephant sometimes attacks her newborn, until she recovers her senses.
Hoffman says the trauma of the birth may temporarily confuse the mother, and this happens in the wild and in zoos.
“They’re going to step on it, they’re going to try to bite it, they’re going to try to tusk it, they’re going to try to head press it. They’re going to get pretty aggressive towards it. It’s kind of a bizarre thing, we don’t know why they do it.”
Stevens says this behavior usually only lasts a few minutes.
In the birthing stall, two teams of people will stand in for the wild elephants, ready to push the calf quickly from out between Shanti’s legs.
“One side will push it towards the other side with long-handled brooms. The people on the catching side, they actually then just grab the calf and pull it off to the side. And then we generally put it on a tarp or something soft and carry it over so our vets can check the calf out really quick and say ‘Hey, it’s good to go.” And then we start cleaning it up a little bit, put a little harness on it and start introducing it back to mom.”
The last time the zoo had an elephant birth was in 2010. That calf, a female, is called Tupelo.
Shanti is having a male, but the zoo is keeping mum about a possible name for now.
The three-acre, outdoor elephant yard at the Houston Zoo. Photo courtesy of Houston Zoo.