Caring For Elephants – A Labor of Love
by | March 29th, 2010

If you had asked me five years ago where I see myself I never pictured working with elephants, the largest land mammals on earth. Largest mammal = largest poop = lots of labor! Our day starts bright and early at 7:30 am, cleaning the exhibit or barn full of hundreds of pounds of elephant poop. While two unfortunate souls (we all take turns) have that fun task, the other two keepers get to give the elephant’s pedicures. Foot care is crucial in the management of captive elephants. In the wild, elephants walk for miles and miles, so they naturally take care of themselves. But in captivity we are limited on space so elephants don’t get the exercise they need and as a result can have poor circulation; therefore not being able to fight off infection should it arise. Every morning we hose, scrub, and inspect our elephant’s feet to make sure there are no problems. We are fortunate that we have six acres of space for our elephants, and with our observation program have found that they walk anywhere from 3-5 miles a day!

Donna elephant playing with large tractor tire, photo by author

After the foot care and morning manure pick-up is done, there is of course more manure pick-up, as well as basic hosing, raking, and clean–up. An even bigger part of our day than clean-up is feeding or what we call the elephant spreads. Three times a day, we shift the elephants off exhibit and put out a food spread for them. This spread consists of hay, chopped up produce, little tablespoons of sweet and sour items, and lots of tree branches. It’s called a spread because we hide and scatter the items far and wide so the elephants have to work for their food and forage to find it. In total we feed our elephants ten times a day.  Elephants in the wild forage and graze for up to 18 hours, so we try to mock this natural behavior with as many feedings as possible. We also try to hang the tree branches, or browse as we call it, on a chain as high as possible to simulate how an elephant would have to pull on a branch or a tree in the wild. The browse consists of half of their diet here at the zoo. We have a specialized Browse Keeper who is responsible for working with local tree companies to get donations of truckloads of branches. The keepers work hard and spend hours throughout the day picking up large dump truck loads of tree branches when companies cannot deliver.

M'Dunda grazing, photo by author

Besides the feeding, clean-up, and browse pick-ups the keepers find little blocks of time for training and enrichment projects. Most of our training at the elephant barn is for husbandry or medical purposes so we can take care of the elephants properly and safely. Some examples of this are blood draws, x-rays, and foot care procedures. Enrichment is one of the most challenging aspects of the job because what does a 10,000 pound elephant do with toys? They destroy them! The keepers have to be creative in finding ways to hang or plant things just out of reach so the elephants can’t smash hour’s worth of work in just minutes. Enrichment consists not only of toys but of all kinds of different ways to stimulate captive animals to keep them busy, whether it is a toy, a new scent, a puzzle feeder, or a new social group.

I started here as a volunteer intern and was lucky enough after awhile to become a full time keeper. This job is the most challenging, yet rewarding job I have ever had because the elephants keep me busy, creative, and exhausted. Usually I tell people I’m the lucky one because the elephants chose me.

Want to learn more about elephants? The Oakland Zoo hosts Celebrating Elephants each year, which is an event centered around elephants, elephant care, elephant research, elephant barn tours, and fun. A Celebrating Elephants evening lecture by Douglas Long, Ph.D., Chief Curator of Natural Sciences at Oakland Museum will also take place on May 13th at 6:00pm.  All proceeds from Celebrating Elephants Day and Lecture will benefit the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

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