Utah's Hogle Zoo announced Monday that its 22-year-old African elephant is expecting a calf, due sometime in summer 2009.
Christie was artificially inseminated in October by a team of German scientists, said zoo spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite. It was their third attempt at impregnating Christie, who was chosen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a good breeding candidate. She has been at Hogle Zoo for most of her life.
"I'm ecstatic. I'm even still almost speechless," elephant trainer Doug Tomkinson said Monday.
If the pregnancy is successful and there's a 90 percent chance it will be the resulting calf will be the first African elephant born in the Intermountain West, Braithwaite said. The last elephant born in Utah was an Asian elephant, born when the Hogle Zoo was located at Liberty Park more than 50 years ago.
The father of Christie's calf is an elephant named Jackson that lives in Pittsburgh, Tomkinson said. Jackson has many elephant babies around the world.
The absence of a father in the new calf's life will imitate the way elephants act in the wild, said Tomkinson, the head elephant keeper at Hogle Zoo. Male elephants only spend time around females and juveniles for breeding purposes, he said. Following an elephant's birth, a group of female elephants led by a matriarch works together to raise offspring, Tomkinson said.
Elephants reach adulthood in about 14 years and can live about 70 years.
Zoo officials first determined that Christie was pregnant by taking blood samples, which showed high levels of pregnancy hormones, Braithwaite said. They then used a softball-size ultrasound machine attached to a laptop to confirm the pregnancy. The procedure was nonsurgical.
"This is the biggest news in the five years I've been here," said zoo marketing director Brad Parkin. "This sheds a lot of light on the zoo nationally, internationally."
The zoo plans to host several public events based on the birth of the new elephant, Parkin said. The birth is expected to occur naturally.
During the pregnancy, a team of five zookeepers will keep watch on Christie and her two female pen mates. An elephant pregnancy consultant may also be called in to help.
The trainers plan to help Christie perform aerobic exercises throughout her 22-month gestation period. They will have her reach above her head for hay, will place food in various areas of the elephant enclosure so she must walk to find it and will call her back and forth through the enclosure daily, Tomkinson said.
"We're not going to allow her to gain any weight," the trainer said. "She's just right how she is. But she needs to build up muscles for the birth."
Elephant calves can weigh up to 400 pounds. However, people just looking at Christie won't be able to tell she's pregnant even when she nears full term, Tomkinson said. Adult elephants weigh around 8,000 pounds.
Zoo officials are still unsure of the sex of Christie's fetus."Elephants are arguably the most popular animals at zoos," Parkin said. "We anticipate the public will be very excited."