Elephants Mikki and Punch by Michael Stephens (2019-07-21)

Mikki Frequently Asked Questions

(updated 8/8/19)

When will the calf be on exhibit? / Why aren’t the elephants on exhibit?
There are many things to consider including calf development, bonding time for the entire herd including Mikki, her calf and Asian elephant Punch, the health of calf and mom, nursing schedules and many others. We do not know an exact time when the herd including Mikki, Punch and calf will be on exhibit. You can find updates on Mikki and her calf on the Zoo’s website where several pages are dedicated to keeping you in the know. Also, be sure to follow the Zoo’s social channels on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. #Mikkiandcalf #Mikkisjourney

Do we offer elephant tours?  Can we meet the calf?
Elephant behind-the-scenes opportunities are not a currently part of the Louisville Zoo’s paid tour program.  If you are interested in a tour, we have several other areas available. Learn more on our website here. If this scenario changes in the future, we will post that information here.

What are you naming the calf? Will you have a naming contest?
We will likely be announcing a naming contest sometime in the next few weeks. Stay tuned and watch social media or visit LouisivlleZoo.org/Mikki to learn how you can enter a name.

How is Mikki doing?
Mikki is recovering from giving birth and is showing good maternal care as the she and her calf continue to bond in the quiet barn.

Did the calf nurse right away?
The calf was nursing within a few hours of his birth. The elephant care team is monitoring the calf’s nursing schedule to ensure it is consistent and from both mammary glands. Mikki is showing good maternal care.

How often does the calf nurse?
He nurses frequently, about every 90 minutes. He almost always naps for 10-30 minutes following nursing.

Does he nurse with his mouth and trunk?
He only nurses with his mouth.

What does Mikki do while he nurses?
Mikki is still while letting the calf nurse for however long he wants.  She sometimes will snack on hay while he nurses.

What Does Mikki eat while she is nursing?

Mikki is eating hay, grain and produce. She still loves bananas! The elephant care team is carefully monitoring Mikki’s diet to assure that she is receiving the appropriate nutrition to maintain her body condition while allowing for nursing of her calf.

How long will the calf nurse?
 Weaning is a gradual process, not a single event. It is believed most calves wean between two and three years of age. This involves the calf being nutritional independent from Mikki (eating solid foods) nursing only occasionally and primarily for comfort.

What does the calf weigh now?
As of Wednesday night 8/7, the calf still weighed 275 lbs. (sames as 8/4). Calves are expected to lose weight in the first week. It is common for mammals to lose weight early in life as they transition from essentially an aquatic environment to one on “the outside”.  This occurs in human infants as well.  They lose weight not only because they literally dry out, but it also takes them time to learn how to nurse and take in enough calories to promote weight gain.  It is typical for elephant newborns to lose about 10% of their body weight the first week, but then they will gain 1-3 lbs. per day through the first year of life. Within months, the calf can weight more than 500 lbs.

Why is the calf gray and Mikki looks brown?
Elephants are actually gray, but adult elephants tend to show colors of the dirt that they roll in. There is a mound of clay in their exhibit which the elephants will play on and use to throw onto their skin.  Elephants soon become the color of the substrate they use as enrichment, sunscreen, and insect repellent.

Are the calf’s feet rubbery?
His feet were soft when first born, yes, but the soft pad toughens up after a few days of walking which is common.

When will he begin making trumpeting sounds?
The calf vocalized shortly after birth.  He can be vocal, and loud, at times.

What are the keepers’ roles now?
The elephant care team continues the daily care of the elephants which now includes the calf — from diet prep, to baths, to foot care and exercise. The staff is still on 24-hour watch with Mikki and calf.

When was the calf born and what did he weigh?
Mikki’s calf was born on Friday, August 2, 2019 at 11:24 p.m.  The calf is male and measured 39 inches tall, 30 inches long (body, head to tail) and 78 inches from the tip of his trunk to the tip off his tail. His weight was 275 pounds on 8/4. Mikki was 33 at the time of the birth. Click to read the media release.

Did the calf nurse right away?
The calf was nursing within a few hours of his birth. The elephant care team is monitoring the calf’s nursing schedule to ensure it is consistent and from both mammary glands. Mikki is showing good maternal care.

How long will the calf nurse?
 Weaning is a gradual process, not a single event. It is believed most calves wean between two and three years of age. This involves the calf being nutritional independent from Mikki (eating solid foods) nursing only occasionally and primarily for comfort.

Who was attending the birth?
Mikki did all the work of course, but Mikki’s care team consisted of both of the Zoo’s veterinarians, three veterinary technicians, all of Mikki’s keepers, two assistant mammal curators, the Zoo’s curator of mammals, the Zoo’s assistant director for conservation education and collections, the previous elephant supervisor and the foremost expert in elephant reproduction who has been consulting with the team from the start. Mikki’s keepers have all had long term tenures with her and Mikki was familiar with everyone in the room that night. They were her extended herd coming together much like the aunts and sisters in the remnant wild come together for a birth in the herd. The night of Aug. 2, 2019 saw the culmination of 5 years of dedication to creating an opportunity for Mikki to experience one of the most natural things an elephant cow can experience — that of becoming pregnant, birthing and raising a calf.

It is important to note that not much has been documented and there isn’t a lot of information available on elephant births in the remnant wild. Teams of researchers and video documentarians would be potentially detrimental to the herd by possibly tipping off predators during a very vulnerable time of birth. What we do know is that the herd becomes more secluded during the birth to avoid this predation of the newborn, that a calf is the most vulnerable in the moments to hours immediately after birth and that most births occur at night and in very remote areas. Zoos can contribute from observations from births in managed systems adding to the cannon of what we know about elephant biology and physiology.

Dr. Dennis Schmitt is the foremost expert on elephant reproduction and he remarked the birth was picture perfect. He said “textbook” then quickly added with a subtle smile that there is no textbook.  Schmitt has been a part of the care team from near and afar having started consulting with us from early attempts at assisted reproduction. Mikki’s calf’s birth was his 58th birth to witness and assist. 

Why did you use ropes for helping the calf to walk instead of letting him walk on his own?
Our number one priority the night of birth was to keep mom and calf safe and to assess the wellbeing of Mikki and the calf. In the moments following birth, much like human infants in every hospital maternity ward/floor in the country the team performed a quick neonatal examination which included clearing mucus from his airways. The team listened to the calf’s heartbeat, treated his umbilical cord, determined sex, collected body measurements and assisted the calf to his feet. Much like any new animal, finding his feet is a process that could take anywhere from a few minutes to hours. Because we wanted Mikki to bond with her calf we offered assistance to expedite this, much like herd members might do in the remnant wild. An elephant cow in labor is used to being surrounded by herd members. In this case, the staff around Mikki have been in long-term established relationships and, in essence, are part of the herd. It was our jobs to be the aunts and sisters and assist that calf to his feet and ultimately to mom for bonding and nursing.

It is important to remember that Mikki was still having labor contractions to pass the placenta which momentarily takes her focus off the calf; in the remnant wild, herd members would continue to assist the calf during this part of the birthing process. Our team tending to the calf during his neonatal exam in the moments following birth allowed Mikki the opportunity to complete this step.

As you can imagine, there was amniotic fluid that was on the floor from the birth; fluid the calf had been living in for nearly 22 months.  Because the floor was somewhat slippery, a few team members’ roles were to lay down bran on the thickly-rubberized floor to create traction for the calf to move around safely. The bran, the ropes, the assistance — they all worked in tandem to expedite getting the calf to his mom as quickly as possible so that he might begin the vital bonding and nursing processes.

As Mikki did the hard work, like herd members we were there to assist her and give her and her calf the very best care possible.

When the staff brought the calf to Mikki, everyone gave a much-needed sigh of relief at the low soft positive vocalizations from Mikki.

What is the flooring?
Mikki and calf are on a thick rubberized floor that is actually heavy duty conveyor belt material.

For Mikki, birthing and raising a calf is the most natural thing an elephant cow can do. Adding a calf to Mikki and Punch’s group will also strengthen the familial bond they already share.

Elephants are a vulnerable species. In the remnant wild, African Elephants are being lost every day due to poaching operations and the collection of illegal ivory. Mikki’s birth was planned as a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative program of all accredited zoos in North America with elephants. The plan promotes the survival of elephant species into the future by providing linkages between zoo animal “ambassadors” and the conservation of their counterparts under protective management in the remnant wild. This birth is significant in helping to contribute to a more sustainable elephant population in accredited zoos, important advocates and participants in world-wide conservation efforts of this magnificent and vulnerable species.

Genetics play an important role in why Mikki’s pregnancy is so important. Mikki came to the Louisville Zoo from a culling operation in Africa in 1987. If not rescued, she would have been killed. Genetic diversity is critical in sustaining a healthy population as it increases the likelihood a population will be able to adapt and survive. Because Mikki’s was wild born, her DNA is not related to any other elephants in the population, so any offspring she has adds to the diversity of the entire population.

Culling operations are held for a number of reasons. It most typically involves removing an animal from an over-populated herd, sometimes by euthanasia, or as in Mikki’s case, removal via a better option. This is done to prevent the elephant population from destroying the habitat that provides the food source which can lead to herd starvation. It is can also be done by wildlife management as a result of limited space or human settlements encroaching into the animal’s territory and resulting human safety issues.

How many elephants are there in the North American population?
As wild populations of elephants continue to decline in Africa and Asia, AZA-accredited and certified facilities are playing a vital role as stewards of an important part of the world’s heritage. While supporting conservation programs in the wild, AZA zoological professionals are also caring for approximately 162 African and 140 Asian elephants in over 60 AZA-accredited facilities

What role does Punch play after the calf is born?
Punch has always been the matriarch of the herd. As matriarch she sets the “rules.” She will maintain that role and be an “aunt” to the calf.

Will this male calf stay at the Zoo or have to move to another Zoo?
Mikki’s birth was planned from a recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) African Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative program of all accredited zoos with elephants. The plan promotes the survival of elephant species into the future by providing linkages between zoo animal “ambassadors” and the conservation of their counterparts in the remnant wild.  As the calf grows into adolescence, we will continue to work within the SSP program to do to what is best for him and this particular population. In the meantime, he will become part of this herd for a number of years.

How many elephants are there in the North American population?
As wild populations of elephants continue to decline in Africa and Asia, AZA-accredited and certified facilities are playing a vital role as stewards of an important part of the world’s heritage. While supporting conservation programs in the wild, AZA zoological professionals are also caring for approximately 162 African and 140 Asian elephants in over 60 AZA-accredited facilities.

When was Mikki due? When did we expect the calf?
Mikki entered her birth window in late June 2019. That window is based on successful elephant births at their earliest and longest times in the typical window which can be  87 days.   Calves can arrive anywhere between day 612 – 699. Mikki had her first calf on day 632. For this term, she reached that mark on July 14.

Did you live stream the birth (like April, the giraffe)?
No, we did not live stream the birth. As you can imagine, there are many factors to consider in what is a complicated process for a VERY large mammal and a full complement of keepers and animal care staff.  Keeping everyone on task and safe is a priority. We will be sharing videos and updates frequently on our website and social channels. Be sure to follow the Zoo’s social channels on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The Zoo also had limited bandwidth for streaming.

Why did you choose to artificially inseminate Mikki?
Assisted reproduction is one of the tools in the toolbox that can be used in animal propagation. One of the most natural things an elephant cow can experience is becoming pregnant, giving birth and raising a calf. Artificial insemination afforded Mikki the opportunity to experience this most natural event without having to move her or a bull. As the African elephant population decreases in an unsustainable manner assisted reproduction could be called upon in the future to aid in the conservation of this magnificent species in in its natural habitat.

As we mentioned there aren’t a lot of documented births from the remnant wild. What we learn from animal ambassadors like Mikki is so very important adding to the cannon of elephant biological and physiological information.

The Zoo’s involvement in the Black-footed ferret recovery program is an excellent example of animals in zoos assist in saving a species from extinction. The Zoo participates with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and five other zoos in a breeding program that has repopulated a species twice thought to be extinct. This species will likely be managed throughout our lifetime and beyond.

How much did the elephant fetus weigh (as of end July 2019)?
The elephant fetus likely weighs over 200 lbs. at this stage of the pregnancy and is gaining an estimated ½ lb per day.  Mikki currently weighs around 9000 lbs.

What was the Vet staff able ti see during an ultrasound (late July)?
Elephant ultrasound exams are conducted in two ways. Transrectal imaging allows for evaluation of the cervix and is most important to evaluate progression of labor.  This is commonly done in horses and cattle. Transabdominal imaging is performed to get glimpses of the developing fetus and evaluate fetal viability.  Running water or liberal application of gel is used to establish good contact between the ultrasound probe and the cracks and crevices of normal elephant skin.  What can be seen transabdominally is somewhat variable since the gravid uterus can shift position and the sound waves emitted by the ultrasound probe only penetrate a maximum of 30 cm.  So depending on the position of the fetus, sometimes only the uterus and membranes floating in the amniotic fluid can be seen. Other times, parts of the fetus can be observed.  At this point in the pregnancy, the elephant fetus is  too large to be captured in a single view on the ultrasound screen.

 Why were Mikki and Punch off exhibit?  (as of end of July, 2019)
Mikki and Punch may be off exhibit preparing for the birth of a calf along with her elephant care teams. We’re all excited and want to make sure she has all the benefits of a well-prepared scenario

What is the typical weight and size of a calf at birth?
Elephant calves typically weigh 200-300 plus lbs. at birth and are about 3 feet tall.

When do you know the gender?
Gender will be determined after the calf is born at the time of the neonatal exam.  The elephant’s unique reproductive anatomy does not allow for easy distinguishing of males versus females while the fetus is in-utero.  The neonatal exam will occur minutes after birth.