Hogle Zoo's new baby elephant was years in the making

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She's a baby years in the making.

Veterinarians decided back in 2004 that Christie the elephant was ready to be a mother. But it took five years and millions of dollars in renovations to the zoo's elephant habitat to bring the Hogle Zoo's newest resident to life.

In a 20-minute labor that went by so fast it surprised her keepers, Christie gave birth to a 251-pound female calf on Monday afternoon. The as-of-yet unnamed calf is the first elephant born in Utah in more than 90 years and is the first African elephant born in the state -- but visitors will have to wait another six to eight weeks before she makes her public debut.

Only about 10 percent of the 250 African elephants in North America are breeding. Experts say they need to breed at about twice that rate to replenish the captive population, because each female can produce a calf just every four or five years. Stillborns are common and infant mortality is high.

So when ultrasounds in 2004 showed that Christie -- then 18 years old -- appeared to be a fertile and healthy candidate for breeding, Hogle officials were excited.

But to win approval from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which oversees elephant breeding in most North American zoos, Hogle's elephant exhibit underwent a $5.5 renovation in 2005 -- paid for, in large part, by a bond Salt Lake City voters approved two years earlier.

"This success began with the community's support of a better home for our elephants," said zoo director Craig Dinsmore. "From that milestone, our elephant and veterinary staff have dedicated themselves to helping Christie have a healthy baby."

But a better home was just a start. Hogle officials and AZA's breeding experts then had to find a father.

Hogle officials debated the merits of sending Christie away to be bred or bringing in a bull, but ultimately decided to try artificial insemination. And they found prolific candidate for the job in Jackson, a 32-year-old bull who has sired at least five calves from his home at the Pittsburgh Zoo, including several through artificial insemination.

Attempts to impregnate Christie in 2006 and 2007 were unsuccessful, but a third attempt was confirmed as successful in February of 2008.

And there was still much work to be done.

For the past 22 months, Christie's handlers have been monitoring her diet-- trying to keep both mother and baby on the light side -- and running her through a daily regimen of exercises designed to ensure that she would have much-needed muscle strength during the birthing process.

The zoo's lead veterinarian, Nancy Carpenter, said on Tuesday that Christie's conditioning likely contributed to the quick and successful birth.

"I think we all expected that, with such a big animal, the process was going to take some time," Carpenter said. "But It went fast. And it went well."

Given complications and dangers often faced by infant elephants -- just last month a mother elephant in the Memphis Zoo accidentally killed her 1-day-old calf while trying to help it to its feet -- Carpenter said the next year is critical.

"The first year of life is the toughest," she said.

But having realized a dream so many years in the making, Carpenter couldn't help but submit to the joy of the occasion.

"It's absolutely wonderful," the vet said. "We've been working at this for a long time, so this is a good day for us."