Bringing up Samson

The Baltimore Sun

You give your rambunctious toddler a nice soapy bath, and what's the first thing he does? He goes out and stomps in the mud, of course.

It was no different this week for Samson, the 5-month-old African elephant at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

No sooner had keeper Marsha Zabarkes scrubbed him down with suds and a stiff brush and hosed him off than the busy 590-pound infant scampered off and immediately stepped in his mother's dung. Nice.

Icky antics aside, the first elephant ever born in Baltimore is doing just fine at five months, his guardians say. Constant observation by his keepers and close medical scrutiny - including high-tech digital X-rays and monthly blood tests - have found no issues aside from a long bout of teething and a little sand in his stomach.

"He's doing really well, knock on wood," said Mike McClure, the zoo's general curator, who confesses he spends most of his time with Samson, his highest-profile charge. The tyke has doubled his birth weight and is taking well to his training. And he has begun subsonic vocal communications with Felix, his 7,200-pound mom.

"He's probably one of the best calves I've seen. Very inquisitive, not shy, not overly cautious," McClure said. "He seems very willing to explore things, and he's extremely cooperative. He's just a nice little elephant so far."

Dr. Ellen Bronson, the zoo's senior veterinarian, is just as delighted with Samson's progress. "He has been a very healthy calf," she said as the youngster wrapped his little trunk around a steel gate and gave it a vigorous round of very noisy yanks. "He's right on track with all his development. If anything, he's been ahead."

He could hardly be more closely scrutinized. Everything he does, everything that goes into him - or comes out - is carefully noted. He's adding two pounds a day, all from mother's milk, and he won't stop nursing for three to five years.

As with any growing infant, teething has been an issue. It seems as if Samson's been cutting his molars "for the majority of my adult life," McClure said with an air of resignation.

Teething began sooner than expected, Bronson said. "He's been putting everything in his mouth and chewing on it - Frisbees, orange cones, balls, any toys hanging around." Even sand.

"It's normal for them to eat dirt," Bronson said. But sand in the dirt tends to drop to the bottom of the elephants' gut and stay there. "If it gets to be excessive, it will become a problem."

So Bronson ordered X-rays. They did show some sand in Samson's digestive tract, but not enough to be worrisome. More X-rays were done to make sure his molars were coming in correctly.

"We're basically not taking any chances with him," McClure said

The X-rays revealed Samson's tusk buds, which proved that he has them. His mother has no tusks, which is unusual for African elephants, male or female. There was great interest in whether Samson might have the same gene.

Elephants' tusks are modified incisors, the only ones they have. They erupt at about 12 months.

Their molars appear first near the front of the jaw. As they wear down, they're reabsorbed and replaced by new molars that move forward as needed from the rear of the jaw, McClure explained.

The X-rays showed Samson's first, second and third molars lined up and ready for duty after he's weaned. He'll get three more sets during his lifetime, and knowing where they are and when they might come in will help keepers anticipate and manage his care.

The X-rays - and others done to check for any foot problems with the zoo's four adult elephants - were taken using a portable digital X-ray machine made by Elkin Medical Systems. It's a loaner, but Bronson says she hopes the zoo can acquire one to replace the failing, film-based machine it has used for 20 years.

Film from the old machine has to be developed at a hospital and brought back to the zoo for examination. The digital machine produces high-resolution images on a computer monitor at the animal's side. That saves time and allows for useful image enhancement, Bronson said.

The machine would be available for all the zoo's animals. But it's expensive - at least $250,000. And the zoo, while it just finished its fiscal year with a slim surplus for the first time in years, is hardly flush with cash.

"We're looking for donors," Bronson said.

Samson, of course, could not care less as he yanks and rattles the fences, splashes in his water tubs, sniffs eagerly at anyone who steps within range and struggles messily with the tricky business of drinking water from his trunk. He'll even nibble at his mother's dung - normal behavior that gives him the bacteria he'll need in his digestive tract to break down grass as an adult.

He's also learning to "talk," McClure said.

"He's been communicating with his mom ever since he was born, with infrasound," McClure said, referring to low-frequency sound. Elephants can hear it, but humans can't. "A month into it, I had my hand on his back and felt him vibrating ... like a cell phone."

The keepers quickly began to take notes. In time, they began to see several patterns.

Sometimes the vibration appears to be a herd greeting. "He will come up and present his rear end - a herd behavior. And when he makes contact with us, he will vibrate," McClure said. Felix shows no reaction to that.

Other times, he said, if Samson gets excited during a training session he will vibrate, and Felix will turn toward him, ears out, apparently listening. Sometimes she responds with an audible growl. Usually she will not move or approach, but will if concerned.

Samson is also developing a voice that is audible to humans - a deep growl or rumble that seems to come when he's annoyed with his mother's fussy attentions. "I interpret it as, sort of, 'Mom, go away,' but I don't know," McClure said. She does not respond.

And on July 30, he said, Samson "let out his first real elephant trumpet - a real landmark to me."

Asked how it sounded, McClure said, "Ridiculous. ... I'm used to the big ones. To hear it from someone his size was just silly. But I was very proud of the boy."


Find a photo gallery of Samson the baby elephant at

An article in Saturday's editions about Samson, the baby elephant at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, misspelled the name of the company that lent the zoo a portable X-ray machine. It is Eklin Medical Systems Inc.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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