Artificial Insemination in the Asian Elephant

I’ve been volunteering at the zoo near my house for almost a year now, and this paper describes by far the most interesting thing I’ve participated in at the zoo.

I began volunteering at the zoo this past summer. When I signed up the previous fall and began taking the classes preparing me for situations that I might encounter while feeding giraffes, shifting lions and tigers, and cleaning the jaguar exhibit, I never imagined that I would take part in something that most would be sickened just to think of. However, when I was invited to help collect semen samples from our bull elephant, I found myself intrigued, even somewhat excited. Not only because someday I look forward to being an exotic animal vet, but because I was going to be a part of such an important project to help Asian elephants in American Zoos. Artificial insemination is a valuable process that makes a difference in the survival of many endangered species, and I was about to get some first-hand experience.

Artificial insemination has a history stretching back more than 200 years, and by the mid-1940s it had become an established industry. It’s an important part of ex-situ conservation, and is especially helpful with elephant populations. In the 1970s, a worldwide ban was set for the import of elephants. In American zoos, the male to female ratio of Asian elephants is around 130:30. Therefore, it was very important that a plan was devised to easily and conveniently impregnate an elephant cow when no males are available. If not for AI, unnecessary time and money would be spent shipping bull elephants from zoo to zoo, keeping them in zoo quarantine until they are able to be slowly introduced to other elephants, and then the long, drawn out, process of attempting to successfully mate the male and female. Males are chosen for this project based on how widespread their genes are; the more offspring a bull elephant has, the less likely he will be used for AI. All of this is done to keep the gene pool fresh. Artificial insemination is not only helpful in zoos, but oftentimes it is a necessary practice in breeding animals.

As I stood in the elephant barn, listening as I was told what I would be doing, I realized that the process is a lot more complicated than most would think. One zoo keeper had to constantly feed fruit to Sneezy, our bull elephant, in order to keep him happy. A man from Springfield, Missouri, came down to help; he would be the one actually stimulating the seminal vesicles so that two zoo keepers would be able to receive the collections using test tubes attached to baggies on the ends of long broomsticks. My job, along with four other helpers, was to take the test tubes and baggies off the poles, cap the tubes, and put them in something called the “brooder,” which keeps the samples fresh. Then we were to put a new baggie/test tube onto the pole, and put it back next to one of the two keepers in charge of getting the samples. All of this was to be done as fast as possible. There were also two vet-techs there to assist wherever they could. We did all of this in one stall, scrambling around as quickly as we could, tripping over one another in the process. It took a lot of concentration, but I knew that the reason we were doing all of this was to make a difference. It was complicated, messy, gross, kind of disturbing, interesting, and pretty cool, and it was all for the greater good of Asian elephants.

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