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But large-animal curator Leeds still doesn't know if the zoo will house musth males together. "That's one of the reasons I'm so interested in doing this project that's going to concentrate on males. You're asking questions now that people don't know the answers to because they haven't had the opportunity to observe it."
Leeds has an elephant-sized soft spot for the giant animals. Although he's not a scientist, he can expound on the science of breeding, on subjects like male gametes and the luteinizing hormones that trigger ovulation in females. He's also passionate about the importance of coupling captive breeding with efforts to protect elephants in the wild.
He even has a tattoo on his left calf of a black-and-white African bull with huge tusks. "I understand them," he says. "They understand me. We get along well. They have a lot of characteristics that are meaningful to me, like intelligence, loyalty, affection. Things that I admire in people that I admire in them as well."
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He can tick off his favorite bulls like he's naming old college buddies. There's Packy, the tall, sweet bull, in Portland. And "tough boy" Rajah in Florida.
And he'll proceed with caution in Denver. "It would be inappropriate, in my opinion, to keep adult males that are both in musth [together], because at some point — again, using our kind of vague paradigm of following the natural history as close as possible — at some point, in the wild setting, somebody loses and goes away," he says. "You can't lose and go away here."
Keele, who in addition to working at the Oregon Zoo is the keeper of the AZA Asian Elephant Studbook, which tracks all of the Asian elephants in North America, echoes Leeds. "We don't have experience doing this. We're going to do it together," he says of Denver's plan. "What Denver could learn will be real valuable."
And there's certainly a lot to learn, both about bulls and breeding. Despite recent advancements, the captive breeding of Asian elephants is far from an exact science. Of the forty captive births that occurred between 1999 and February 2007, only 23 babies survived, the studbook says. Some were stillborn; others succumbed to disease. There is also some evidence that keeping captive males together suppresses their fertility.
The breeding plan for Denver's bulls is flexible. It could happen one of several ways: A bull could travel to a zoo where there is a breeding-age female; a female could travel to Asian Tropics; artificial insemination could be used; or a bull could mate naturally with a breeding-age female living in Asian Tropics, a less likely scenario, but not out of the question. Sending elephants cross country for breeding is pricey; the last time the Denver Zoo sent one, in 2001, it cost $10,200, Barnhart says.
Denver isn't the only zoo building more space for bouncing baby boys. Several other big zoos — including those in Los Angeles, San Diego and Washington, D.C. — are expanding their elephant exhibits, despite some outcry from animal-rights groups and other people who insist that no zoo is large enough to handle the world's biggest land mammals. Like Denver, those zoos are building both bull stalls and maternity stalls as well as setting aside space to do artificial insemination, just in case.
Asian Tropics is likely to cull its bulls from animals already in the U.S.; importing them from overseas is expensive and frowned upon. But zoo officials say it's too early to determine which bulls will come to Denver, since the exhibit won't be finished until 2011 or 2012.
In June, the zoo solicited bids from general contractors interested in building the exhibit. They received ten responses and hope to choose a contractor by September. "We'll start construction as soon as we have that contractor in place," Piper says. "We're ready to go."
When it's completed, the zoo's two current elephants, fifty-year-old Mimi and forty-year-old Dolly, will probably be the first to see it. "I want to walk Mimi and Dolly from their current facility to Asian Tropics and see the excitement of them exploring that new habitat, first and foremost," Piper says.
On a hot summer afternoon, it's easy to see that Mimi and Dolly are among the Denver Zoo's most popular attractions. Kids in matching summer-camp T-shirts crowd around the fence that surrounds their exhibit, leaning over to watch as the lumbering ladies give themselves dust baths and try to shake treats from a giant ball suspended from a chain like an enormous Kong dog toy. Fathers hold up babies, and old women in wheelchairs snap pictures.
At one point, Mimi turns her back to the visitors and starts to poop. Kindergarteners ooh and aah as softball-sized turds fall in a heap on the ground. Then she drenches the pile with a deluge of urine, like someone's turned on a huge faucet. "The elephant did pee-pee!" one small girl cries, pointing at the wet pile. "It looks like soda!" a boy shrieks.
Piper and Barnhart, the zoo's communications director, are standing nearby and don't bat an eye. To them, elephant poop is mundane, the stuff of everyday life. Instead, they prefer to envision what it will be like when there's an entire exhibit full of majestic bulls. "Asian Tropics is an exhibit like no other in terms of being able to see, potentially, a large group of bulls together," Piper says.