Veterinarians Save Elephant After Four Days of Labor

Veterinarians removed a dead 330-pound calf from the womb of an Asian elephant stalled in labor for four days in a rare surgery at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

Zoo staff were walking Romani around in the elephant barn about 30 minutes after the four-hour surgery Thursday to widen her birth canal, an operation similar to a human episiotomy, said zoo spokeswoman Sarah Fedele.

"Her vital signs are very good," Fedele said. "It's disappointing that her calf did not survive. But there's a big feeling of relief here that Romani is doing well."

The female calf was taken to Cornell University's veterinary school for a necropsy. Veterinarians will try to determine when it died and why it became trapped inside the birth canal, Fedele said. One theory is that one of its knees became bent, she said.

Romani, 29, had carried the calf for nearly two years and was three weeks past the due date calculated by zoo staff.

Romani was put under 24-hour watch Monday night after veterinarians tried to induce labor with hormone shots two nights in a row.

Even with the injections, the elephant's contractions weren't long enough or strong enough to deliver the calf. Romani had given birth three times before — 1991, 1995 and 2002 — although labor was induced each time.

While the episode unfolded, zoo officials were unable to tell if the calf was alive. Normal fetal monitoring does not work for elephants, making it difficult to determine the condition of the fetus.

On Wednesday, zoo staff saw Romani's white blood cell count increase and became concerned about a possible infection. It was decided to try surgery.

Over the past decade, the operation has been conducted on elephants in North America seven other times, with six of the mothers surviving, Fedele said. She did not know if any of the calves survived.

The team assembled at Rosamond Gifford consisted of eight veterinarians and reproductive specialists, led by Dr. Dennis Schmitt of Missouri State University.

Fedele said Romani will be closely monitored and kept inside for 10 days. It will take her three to six months to fully recover from the surgery, Fedele said.

Rosamond Gifford has had five previous births and is considered one of the world's premier breeders of Asian elephants, an endangered species with about 52,000 remaining in the wild. Its resident bull, Indy, has sired 10 offspring, five of which survived.