Shortly after an elephant gave birth at the Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in Rongcheng, China, she rejected the calf.
She didn't just reject him, the mother elephant stepped on him.
Zookeepers removed the baby elephant, treated his injuries, and returned him to his mother. They thought she'd mistakenly stepped on him.
But she did it again, reports the British news site, the Daily Mail.
Zookeepers then permanently removed the baby elephant from the same enclosure holding the mother.
"The calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled," a spokesman said. 'He couldn't bear to be parted from his mother and it was his mother who was trying to kill him."
The baby elephant has since been adopted by the zookeepers and is making good progress.
How unusual is it for an elephant – or any baby mammal – to be rejected by its mother? It's not the norm. But it does happen. A baby spider monkey was rejected by its mother at the Melbourne Zoo in 2011. The zoo staff jumped in to care for the little tyke, and there were some adorable (and sad) photos of the baby monkey cuddling with stuffed animals.
The Featured Creature blog tells the stories of a baby meerkat, aardvark, wallaby, spider monkey, seal, and lemur, who were all abandoned by their mothers and then nurtured by zookeepers. While there's been speculation that mothers in captivity don't know how to take care of their young, because the don't have good role models, there's also evidence to suggest that this kind of behavior happens in the wild as well. But for different reasons.
"Researchers long viewed infanticide and similar acts of maternal skulduggery as pathological, a result of the mother's being under extreme stress.... it made little genetic sense for a mother to destroy her young, and maternal nurturing was assumed to be a hard-wired affair.
More recently, scientists have accrued abundant evidence that "bad" mothering is common in nature and that it is often a centerpiece of the reproductive game plan," reports The New York Times in 2006. The article notes that pandas, for example, often practice "a postnatal form of family planning, giving birth to what may be thought of as an heir and a spare, and then, when the heir fares well, walking away from the spare with nary a fare-thee-well."
"Pandas frequently give birth to twins, but they virtually never raise two babies," said Scott Forbes, a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg. "This is the dark side of pandas, that they have two and throw one away."
It is also something that zoos with ever-popular panda displays rarely discuss.
"They consider it bad P.R. for the pandas," Dr. Forbes said.
Scientists have observed that species, especially those that live in harsh environments with uncertain food or water sources, often have "back up" progeny. But because the environment is difficult, it's difficult for the mother to feed multiple offspring. So, that often means that at some point the perceived weakest progeny is eliminated in order to save the stronger ones.
By the same token, when one mother rejects its young, there are countless examples of the compassion of surrogate mothers. These range from zookeepers, other females within the animal's herd or group, or even other species adopting an orphan.
The Chinese zookeepers certainly seem to be enthusiastic in their nurturing of the rejected baby elephant.
Check out this site for examples of interspecies mothering, including a pig feeding tiger cubs, a dog nursing a fawn, and dog feeding a kitten.