March 3, 2006

Zoo artificially inseminates Asian elephant

By Patricia Wilson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five weeks after the U.S. National
Zoo put down one of its elephants, veterinarians artificially
inseminated another, hoping to add one more notable birth at an
institution hit by high-profile deaths.

Shanthi, a 30-year-old 9,000-pound (4,000-kg) Asian
elephant stood in a training chute -- a contraption with bars
to restrain her gently -- and a keeper fed her treats while the
zoo's experts and a team of German veterinary scientists used
ultrasound and a catheter for the 45-minute procedure.

It will be four months before they know if it was
successful, but the zoo is taking no chances.

"We've got another semen sample that's being flown in from
Tulsa (Oklahoma) so we'll be doing another one tonight,"
spokeswoman Peper Long told Reuters in a telephone interview on

Hormonal analysis will determine if Shanthi has conceived.
The gestation period for elephants is about 22 months.

Toni, a 40-year-old Asian elephant stricken with arthritis
was euthanized in late January, about two decades short of the
typical expected life span.

Her death set off a debate over whether the species
belonged in zoos. Animal rights groups complained that close
confinement and hard floors in zoos were unsuitable for
elephants and had urged the Smithsonian Institution's National
Zoo to move her to a sanctuary in Tennessee.

The zoo has lost dozens of large animals since 1998,
including an elephant in 2000, two red pandas mistakenly killed
by rat poison, a lion, a zebra, a cheetah and a giraffe.

An investigation by the National Research Council found
problems with staff training, workplace culture and strategic

But the zoo has experienced some remarkable successes, most
importantly the birth last summer of giant panda Tai Shan who
has attracted huge crowds and worldwide media attention.

The flagship institution also has bred nine cheetah cubs in
the past two years as well as rare clouded leopards and red

Shanthi was successfully artificially inseminated once
before and gave birth to a male elephant, Kandula, in 2001.

Five other attempts to artificially inseminate an elephant
at the National Zoo failed due to poor semen quality and

"A successful artificial insemination depends on accurately
predicting the time of ovulation," Long said. "Shanthi's
hormone range has told us that we're at the far end."

The procedure was planned before Toni's death.

"We've been wanting to do this for a while," Long said.
"One of the reasons is because Shanthi is a natural mother and
breeding is a very natural, normal part of an elephant's social

In addition to Shanthi and Kandula, the zoo has a third
elephant, Ambika, a female in her 50s.