340-lb. toddler debuts at zoo

The Baltimore Sun

Freshly scrubbed and primped for his grand entrance at the appointed moment yesterday morning - exactly 10 minutes before 10 - the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's baby elephant was introduced to his public, not at all fazed by the crowd thrilled to catch their first glimpse of the scampering calf.

Along with the camera flashes and cries of "there he is," the pint-sized pachyderm got something else - a name. More than 1,600 names were submitted and more than 12,000 people voted, choosing the biblical name Samson for the first African elephant born at the zoo in its 132-year history.

"Can I take him home?" said docent Emily Miller with a laugh. She drove 55 miles from her home in Frederick on her day off, just to see Samson's first outing.

Samson never strayed far from his mother, Felix, who came to the zoo in December from Arkansas and gave birth March 19. The baby seemed so small, many marveled yesterday, but when you're standing next to a mom who weighs in at more than 7,000 pounds, 340 pounds - and gaining 2 1/2 pounds a day - can seem downright petite.

The dark gray elephant explored an old tire with his trunk, then moved closer to the crowd, curling his trunk around one of the slats in the fence. His adoring fans lapped it up.

"I'd love to say we taught him all that," said Mike McClure, the zoo's general curator and elephant manager, "but he's a natural."

Within a few minutes of being set loose in the outdoor exhibit, Samson tried to climb onto a large boulder, placing his two front legs atop it. McClure tapped on those legs, imploring the little guy to get down so he wouldn't get hurt. Samson complied, but when McClure turned his head, the elephant was again trying to scale that rock, showing he's more of a "Sammy" right now than a full-grown "Samson."

"He's exactly like a toddler," McClure said. "They test things and experiment. They want to explore everything."

Politicians and other dignitaries on hand for speeches and proclamations were quickly upstaged when Samson emerged.

Zoo officials hope that Samson - along with a new giraffe feeding exhibit, a baby camel coming this summer and the return of the African aviary this year - will revive the struggling institution, which has been threatened with the loss of its accreditation because of financial troubles.

"We think it's going to help with more people coming through the doors," said zoo President Donald P. Hutchinson. "This baby will be a baby for a while, and it's fun to watch."

Samson will stay small and kidlike for several years and won't reach full maturity until he is in his 20s.

Rachel Stolusky, a zoo veteran at age 3, looked forward to seeing the baby elephant all morning. When the family made its usual first stop at the rhinoceros exhibit - the rhino is the Owings Mills girl's favorite animal - she started fussing. She had to see the elephant, said her mother, Felicia.

"Look at him playing," she said. "I'm sure because of Rachel we'll be here a while."

Weather permitting, Samson and his mother will be on public display from 10 a.m. to noon every day. The rest of the herd won't be joining them on these excursions.

Tuffy, the male elephant who came from Arkansas along with Felix, stays in a separate enclosure. Males are more aggressive than females and in the wild don't regularly live with the females. Females Dolly and Anna have seen Samson close up, but have been separated by a fence from the baby. Dolly and Anna are so big they could accidentally hurt Samson, so keepers have decided to wait until he is bigger before giving them unfettered access.

"There he is. There he is. There he is," proclaimed Elliott White, a 2-year-old from Catonsville. "Little baby. Little baby."

The elephant exhibit had to be reconfigured for that little baby. Every toddler needs to have his home babyproofed, and the elephant enclosure was no exception. The pond, for example, is chained off from Felix and Samson for now. It is 12 feet deep, and he could drown.

As any proud parent might, the zoo's staff were doing a little bragging about their new addition yesterday. "He's ahead of the learning curve for an elephant calf," McClure said.

Samson is doing things with his trunk that elephants don't typically do for several more months. He can get water in his mouth with his trunk, is picking things up with his trunk and has even started using it to eat his mother's manure - a good thing, McClure assured, as the bacteria in it will help Samson's digestive system mature.

"He's very inquisitive. He's just ... almost friendly," McClure said. "He's not afraid of people.

"The world is a happy new place for him."


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