I recently attended the 2013 Elephant Care Workshop at the Phoenix Zoo. The Workshop is put on by the zoo’s highly
dedicated and compassionate elephant staff, as well as their partner Alan Roocroft who operates Elephant Business, a small elephant management consulting company. There were several keynote speakers, besides Alan, who covered topics from tusk and oral care to elephant diseases and radiographs. The focus of the workshop was foot care, which involves several issues, such as disease and abscesses, tool care and use, foot anatomy, habitat complexity and interaction, and exercise. When talking elephants, there are a multitude of things that are important when it comes to their health and well-being, but the care of their feet is at the top of the list. Foot disease and related issues are the number one reason for death in captive elephants. As Alan says, “foot care should be a culture at your facility”. I took away several important key facts from this workshop and I’d like to share them.
To provide elephants in captivity with everything they need is providing them with health and well-being physiologically, physically, and psychologically. If one of those three is off than the others don’t work as well, or at all. What I learned during our
lectures and discussions in the workshop is that a healthy mind equals healthy feet and vice versa. But what does it take to create a healthy mind and in turn healthy feet? Three basic things: firstly, the philosophy of the institution. We are fortunate that our management prioritizes elephant care and understands that foot care is a priority during the daily routine. Each day the keepers spend up to four hours working with the elephants on daily husbandry and training. If there is not trained competent staff as well as elephants along with sufficient time, then the elephant’s needs cannot be met.
Secondly, a basic understanding of an elephant’s natural history and biological needs is required. This seems so simple when thinking about it . . . spacious facilities, dirt, mud, browse, grass, varied terrain, social groups . . . the list goes on and on. We need to create complex environments and interactive habitats or else the elephants mind is not stimulated. If the mind is not stimulated then we end up with inactive, overweight, and arthritic elephants. Our goal should be to get the elephants moving, which means exercise is key. Elephants need space to move, but they also need a reason. Encouraging movement through spreading food ten times a day, hanging browse far and wide, providing acres of grass to graze from, are a few of the reasons our elephants at Oakland Zoo get their exercise. Besides exercise, we need to provide them with stimulation through reaching, digging, mudding, climbing different terrains, stepping over mounds of sand, stripping bark off of logs, etc. These are all ways they use their feet and stimulate healthy blood flow.
Lastly, imagination is the third factor that ties everything together. If a facility has the right philosophy and vision then they can create facility design that meets the elephant’s needs through the right imagination. When Oakland Zoo expanded the elephant exhibit in 2004, we did it with little funding because that’s all it took. We expanded the space by four acres, three of which were irrigated and seeded creating the opportunity for grazing, again a basic biological need of an elephant. Besides having the proper facility design, the keepers work on daily enrichment such a cutting fresh grass and weeds, but also on weekly enrichment such as hanging puzzle feeders on a pulley system, or stacking large tires and planting thirty foot logs for pushing over. As their caretakers, we need to provide them with the basics and more, and also provide them with the opportunity to create behavior chains. A behavior chain is a series of behaviors that occur simultaneously and instinctively. Time after time, I have observed Lisa elephant go for a swim, get out of the pool and dust with a dirt pile to dry and protect her skin, and then scratch on a large planted log (typically after elephants get wet and muddy, they get itchy, so they prefer to scratch). This would be an example of a behavior chain, but would not be possible if Lisa was not provided with any of these things. Enriching elephants is a huge challenge and I’ve always thought, how define enrichment for elephants when so many of these things are basic needs. Browse and dirt and grass shouldn’t be enrichment, it should be standard.
Unfortunately many facilities, particularly circuses, cannot meet the physical and psychological demands of elephants. Being confined to small spaces, inactive and stagnant for hours standing on concrete equals inactive feet. Inactive feet means devascularization of important tissue that would normally be flowing with circulation. When tissue dies it becomes necrotic and infected, which causes an abscess in the foot. If infection reaches the bones in the feet, which are very close to the toenails, and causes osteitis, then the chances of survival are slim. Besides abscesses, arthritis is also another highly common ailment in elephants. Arthritis has many causes such as inactivity, stereotypic behavior such as swaying, obesity, and injury. Inactivity caused by sterile environments, can in turn cause abscesses and arthritis which can therefore cause altered body conformation which is very important in elephants. Elephants have pillars for legs which they need to support their weight. These legs stand almost directly underneath them, and their body weight is distributed by the midline sixty percent in the front, and forty percent in the back. If one thing is wrong, this whole system may be compromised. Depending on which leg or foot is injured, the whole weight distribution will be shifted to compensate for the issue, which in turn will have long term consequences and further health issues.
One of the most important lessons I have learned from my mentors in being an elephant keeper is to know what your elephants are doing and know what they’re going to do. We need to continually expand our knowledge about the elephants that are in our care and we can do that through learning and witnessing their natural behavior in the wild, as well as observing their behavior in captivity. As an elephant keeper, our responsibility does not turn off when we go
home. The elephants’ behaviors don’t just come to a halt when we leave them for the day. Therefore, we should know what they do during the entire twenty-four hours of the day. At Oakland Zoo, our elephants are observed during the day by a team of ten volunteer observers; they are recorded at night during the winter time in the barn, and are watched for two full nights a month when they sleep outside during summer months. Through these observations we have been able to alter our management to best suit their needs. We also have collected hundreds of hours of data to help us define the elephants’ behavioral activity budget as well as how far they travel in a day, which is very valuable information that determines important decisions about their care.
I was fortunate to attend this workshop and have the opportunity to absorb as much knowledge as I could; moreover, I came home and share that knowledge with my fellow keepers. I was also fortunate to meet a group of fantastic elephant keepers from around the country, and even the world! Thanks to the Phoenix Elephant Crew for putting on such a wonderful workshop.
Come join us for our 17th annual Celebrating Elephants Day in memory of Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society. On May 17, you can listen to a lecture by keynote speaker, Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Welfare Society. While dining on wine and h’orderves, you will have the opportunity to bid on lovely auction items to help support the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya; a forty year research project led by world-renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss. For the family event, come out to Oakland Zoo for daytime fun on May 25, to see the elephants get their daily pedicure, watch Circus Finelli an animal free circus, get your face painted, and create special enrichment just for the elephants. For more details please visit our Celebrating Elephants page on www.oaklandzoo.org.
Tags: African Elephants, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Celebrating Elephants Day, Elephant Business, elephant footcare, elephant health, Elephants, Oakland Zoo, Oakland Zoo Elephants, Phoenix Zoo, ZooKeepers