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Another 300-Pound Baby

A NEW BABY ELEPHANT is due at the Wild Animal Park this month——the third pachyderm birth this year. “We are really excited,” says Jeff Andrews, an animal-care manager in charge of the park’s elephant program. “Elephants have a long gestation, about 21 to 22 months. It could be a month early or a month late and still be a normal, healthy birth. We prepare for it long in advance, and as we get closer, there are many things I monitor so we can better track field help and maternal health.”

The newest birth will bring the park’s African herd to an even dozen. Newborns can weigh as much as 300 pounds and stand nearly 3 feet tall. The herd works together to care for the new calf. Every new arrival validates the park’s conservation efforts.

In August 2003, the Wild Animal Park rescued seven elephants (six cows and a bull) from a southern Africa park in Swaziland. Although the African elephant is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the animals were slated to be killed because the land would no longer support them. Elephants forage for about 16 hours a day and can consume more than 300 pounds of food. They also drink about 18 gallons of water each day. African officials had two choices: Kill the elephants or ship them to another park.

“We had three primary goals for the operation,” says Andrews. “One was to rescue the elephants from being killed. We also wanted to improve the ecology of the land so it can recover. That promotes the well-being of other critically endangered animals such as roan antelope and black rhino.”

Lungile (LOON-GEE-LEE), the park’s mother-to-be, will be watched continuously in the weeks leading up to the estimated delivery. Females typically give birth at night while standing among other elephants, so Lungile will not be separated. Andrews says the park’s policy is to “let elephants be elephants.” But special lighting will be installed; lights will not be so bright as to disturb the mother but strong enough to allow the birth to be videotaped and monitored. A research team will collect around-the-clock data.

The Wild Animal Park is at 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, east of Escondido. Admission ranges from $17.50 to $28.50; parking is $6. Call 760-747-8702 or visit sandiegozoo.org for information. During this month’s Festival of Lights (December 7-23 and December 26-30), the park stays open until 8 p.m.

Blood, Sweat + Tears

CARLOS BARRAGAN JR. knows the look. He sees it every day in the faces of the young men he trains at his National City boxing gym, which recently caused a storm of controversy.

“I see it in the way they walk, the way they talk,” says Barragan, who in 1991 founded a nonprofit boxing center (with a single punching bag) with his father, Carlos Sr., in their National City backyard. “They come in here as tough guys and leave as men. I see it every time.”

Every day, a parade of young men between 9 and 17——mostly Hispanic and sometimes reformed gang members——pummel the gym’s punching bags and rat-a-tat-tat the speed bags. Seemingly transfixed, they jump rope and shadow-box to a pulsating rap beat.

“We’re the only gang-diversion program in National City, and it’s all free,” says Barragan about the Community Youth Athletic Center. “I’m proud that our building has never been tagged—— [it’s] because everyone here knows we’re the heart and soul of this community.”

Which is why when City Hall came knocking two years ago, saying it wanted to relocate their gym to accommodate a 24- story condo project, the Barragans resisted. Mayor Ron Morrison contends the Barragans knew the property (owned by the gym’s nonprofit corporation) was designated for redevelopment when they moved in five years ago.

Morrison and the city council offered the Barragans a bigger locale with better facilities and a funding boost. The pair rejected the offer. “We thought, ‘If they support us financially, why try to take our house?’ ” says Carlos Jr. “We felt offended.”

The gym’s board of directors went on a legal and PR offensive, vowing to stay put. The imbroglio created a national fuss after Sports Illustrated ran a commentary in August ripping city leaders. Columnist Rick Reilly wrote he hoped Morrison’s car would be stripped by one of the kids who’d lose his gym. Irate, the mayor branded the column “sleazy journalism” that inaccurately claimed the city had outright ordered the gym to leave (he says talks never reached that stage).

Cooler heads prevailed when the developer, Constellation Property Group, agreed to build around the gym. Bruised egos aside, the younger Barragan feels he’s been given renewed life. “We’re gonna stay here and do what we do,” says the 38-year-old Sweetwater Union High graduate. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

Since 2002, the center has received $210,000 in funding from the city. Other major donors include UPS and the Barona Band of Mission Indians.

“We’ve all put blood, sweat and tears into this program,” Morrison says. “Let’s just say we’re proud to support all programs that improve the lives of our young people.”

The raw energy that permeates the gym gives city manager Chris Zapata hope for the blue-collar city, whose per capita income ranks among the lowest in the United States. “These kids remind me of me when I was a kid,” he says.

“We may not make the next Oscar de la Hoya,” says Barragan, “but we give these kids a home. If we don’t do it, the gangs out there will, believe me.”

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