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Omaha woman, non-profit lead charge in zoo elephant conservation

Posted at 7:27 AM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-16 08:27:41-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — It was just another day for Dr. Kari Morfeld.

“All the shipments come to my house. So, we opened the boxes and we had lemur samples, capybara samples, lots of giraffe samples. Clouded leopard, red panda, rhino,” Morfeld said.

Let’s address the elephant in the room—or should we say—the basement.

“So I renovated this all (my basement) to be a full reproductive physiology endocrine lab.”

Morfeld grew up in Creston, Nebraska working with cattle, and always wanted to work with wildlife.

She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Nebraska while interning and working in the reproductive biology department at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Morfeld then packed her bags and took a chance at an internship at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

“I was in the endocrinology department testing hormones in animals, and they ran the largest elephant endocrine database in the country.”

The Smithsonian was impressed and wanted her to stick around for her Ph.D.

“So, I did a large study to figure out what could be one of the factors in zoo elephants that’s contributing to these elephants not even having a reproductive cycle,” Morfeld said. “Like, not even capable of pregnancy.”

She studied the cycles of every female zoo elephant in the country for two years, comparing them to elephants in Africa.

“Sure enough, 75 percent of our elephants were overweight or obese. 75 percent,” Morfeld said. “And that was a huge contributor to them not having a reproductive cycle.”

Drawing from her Nebraska roots, Morfeld created a five-point scale to measure body condition that is now used by zoos across the country. The scale is based on the same scale used for cattle.

“You should look for a backbone and a hip bone on an elephant, and then you know it’s in good body condition.”

After her Ph.D., she returned to Nebraska but didn’t stop her work.

“Zoo elephants are going to be extinct in about 40-50 years in zoos unless we have more births than deaths. Right now, we're on a negative growth rate.”

With the support of funds and grants, she continued her work at a lab at the Lincoln Zoo.

In 2016, it was announced that 18 African elephants were coming to three different facilities in the U.S., one being the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.

“You know, we’re bringing these elephants into these three different situations. Let’s study them, see what works, the social part, so we can set a new benchmark for other zoos,” Morfeld said.

She worked in a lab at the Henry Doorly Zoo, studying fecal samples of all 18 elephants to assess hormones for health and reproduction.

With her help, the very first elephant was born at the Omaha Zoo, followed by a second, with a third on the way.

“If people knew the significance of one birth, like, I don’t think people understand. An elephant is pregnant for 22 months, and it’s really rare that they have pregnancies,” Morfeld said. “Their cycle lasts three months. So, you only have three opportunities to get pregnant.”

In 2019, funds and grants had run out. Morfeld, a single mom, was offered a job.

“Thanks, no thanks. I’m going to start my own business here, this non-profit, because if I don’t, I will kick myself every day for the rest of my life,” she said. “So, I left and made this non-profit now—For Elephants.”

For Elephants monitors zoo elephants' ovulation cycles, hormone levels, and stress levels from her basement. Identical to a lab she has set up in South Africa.

“We have changed so many steps in elephant management and care for individual elephants in zoos from the basement of my home,” Morfeld said. “So, we are piece by piece doing this across different zoos, and now we’re seeing exponential success.”

She has even integrated master’s and Ph.D. students from UNO and UNL to help continue her conservation efforts.

“This will last long after me, but I’m training this next generation so this lives and grows way passed me.”

She has worked with more than 300 elephants across the country, and more than 1,000 in total.

Dedicating her life to elephants and endangered species—something that will never change.

“If I can go to bed at night feeling like I gave it all to the animals and the people—and set an example for my kids,” Morfeld said. “Like in ten years there are no more elephants or ten left, and they say, ‘mom weren’t you working on this? Why didn’t you do that?’ Not on my watch.”

For Elephants will be taking its first expedition to South Africa since the pandemic began next month. Morfeld says there are thousands of elephant fecal samples to go through once they arrive.

If you’d like to support For Elephants, the non-profit will be hosting a luncheon fundraiser May 28 at Zen Coffee on 25th and Farnam.

For more information on For Elephants, and to learn how you can give back, click here.