Looking closely at 7,900-pound Christie, one of Hogle Zoo's two elephants, you'd never know she was 18 months pregnant. Nothing unusual is noticeable. She's about the same adult weight as usual and is physically stronger than ever.
But sometime during July or August, Christie will deliver her first baby, probably weighing 180 pounds to 250 pounds — the first elephant to be born at Hogle Zoo in more than 80 years. Princess Alice gave birth to the first Utah elephant when the zoo was at Liberty Park back in 1918.
"She looks like the same Christie," Hogle Zoo senior veterinarian Nancy Carpenter said.
Doug Tomkinson, lead elephant keeper, said nothing is altered in her behavior, either. She still does the same routine during her 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily shows at Elephant Encounters.
Christie was artificially inseminated in October 2007 so that she and baby would enjoy some warm weather in the summer of 2009 when she would deliver. African elephants carry their offspring 20 to 22 months — the longest of any land mammal.
Jackson, a male elephant in the Pittsburgh zoo, is the father.
Carpenter hopes Christie can deliver the new baby without outside assistance, but "we're planning for every contingency," she said, cautioning that there are no guarantees with this birth. There are risks and things could go wrong. Labor could last anywhere from two hours to 24 hours.
Christie has regular tests and Carpenter said there will probably be some clues in her blood, three to five days out from her delivery date.
Does Christie know she is pregnant? "Who knows?" Carpenter said.
The process of naming the coming new baby hasn't been discussed yet, and zoo staff won't know the gender of the elephant until it is born. Ultrasounds have been used on Christie, but they can only show a portion of the baby and gender is very hard to see in elephants anyway.
If the new baby is a female, it will likely remain at Hogle Zoo with its mother. That's because elephants tend to remain with their mothers for life, while males eventually go out on their own.
When it arrives, the new baby will also likely be out of public view for up to several weeks while it bonds with its mother.
"In a way it's something to look forward to," Tomkinson said, adding the impending birth is a way to cope with the death of Misha, a Hogle Zoo elephant that had to be euthanized last September. "You never really forget a death."
Christie is still eating her usual two to four bales of high a day, but is monitored more closely and is getting more exercise than usual.
The zoo's other elephant is Dari, a 49-year-old female who is currently the oldest elephant in North America.