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Claire, a 12-year-old elephant at Omaha’s zoo, is pregnant and due in 2022

Chris Machian/The World-Herald

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    OMAHA, Nebraska (Omaha World-Herald) — Zookeepers in Omaha are about to be busy baby-proofing the place.

But they have about a year before Claire, a 12-year-old African elephant, welcomes a calf.

Officials at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium announced Claire’s big news on Thursday.

Claire will give birth to a roughly 200-pound bundle of joy in late January or February next year. Callee, the baby’s father, came to Omaha about two years ago from the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama.

The news is good for the zoo’s seven-elephant herd, said Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of the zoo. It will allow the animals to maintain their herd.

But it’s also good news for conservation. It enhances the prospect that future generations will be able to see elephants in North America, Pate said.

“We wanted to build a multigenerational herd here, and now we’re on our way toward achieving that goal,” Pate said. “It’s exciting for us and it’s going to be great for the Omaha community.”

Baby-proofing — or rather, calf-proofing — will include installing new cameras in the elephant quarters that have better night vision. It will allow keepers to monitor Claire and the other six elephants in the herd, said Sarah Armstrong, elephant manager.

Armstrong said zoo staff want to be as hands-off as possible during Claire’s delivery. But they’re crafting a solid plan for every scenario so that they’re prepared when the baby is born.

“We want to allow them to be elephants and have their baby,” she said.

Staff also will add more horizontal cables to the elephant barn enclosure so the wiggly little calf won’t be able to squeeze through. They also will add things like mesh panels to areas in the barn, yards and transfer chutes to keep baby from getting in trouble.

Zoo staff confirmed Claire’s pregnancy by monitoring her hormone levels. An ultrasound showed a tiny set of elephant toes. This will be the first elephant birth in the Omaha zoo’s history, Armstrong said.

“I’m happy for the herd to have something they can all rally around,” Pate said.

The younger an elephant gets pregnant for the first time, the better her chances are at getting pregnant later in life, said Jason Herrick, director of reproductive sciences at the zoo. Herrick said two or three elephants are born in a typical year at zoos in North America.

The goal, Pate said, is for all of the Omaha females to get pregnant. The females all enjoy being around Callee, and now that he’s a proven breeder, things are promising. It’s possible Callee could be sent out to other zoos, Pate said, but that’s a decision that won’t be made for some time.

Louie, the herd’s other bull, hasn’t caught on to the social rules of courtship, Pate said.

The zoo’s five female elephants, plus one male, arrived in Omaha in 2016 from Swaziland. Many zoo fans were elated, but the arrival drew disapproval from some animal rights organizations.

The 36-hour journey from Swaziland to Omaha included stops in Senegal, Texas and Kansas, depositing some of the herd’s elephants at two other American zoos. Veterinarians accompanied the elephants along the way, and zoo staff met the elephants at Eppley Airfield.

The elephants moved into the zoo’s $73 million African Grasslands exhibit.

In September 2017, Warren, a bull elephant in the original herd, died during a procedure. He had been the herd’s lone male until the arrival of Louie that summer. Callee arrived in 2019.

Claire, who weighs 5,080 pounds, is the first elephant from the Swaziland herd to become pregnant.

The elephants have made progress since arriving in Omaha. They all have gained weight — with the smallest of the herd nearly doubling in size — and developed relationships and a social structure. They also have bonded with keepers and have learned about 24 different skills such as lifting their feet to help keepers check on them.

“They came in as wild elephants,” Pate said. “They didn’t know what an airplane was or what a lawn mower was or what a crowd of 1,000 people was. They had a lot of adjusting to do.”

During Thursday’s announcement, elephants Claire, Lolly and Callee demonstrated some of their training techniques. They stood to the side, lifted their feet and opened their mouths. Trainers tossed in treats after each skill the elephants demonstrated.

The training makes it easier for zoo staff should they need to inspect a wound, work on the elephants’ feet or check their mouths.

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