Author Archive

African Elephant Romance (or in scientific terms “Reproductive Strategy”)

by | February 16th, 2016

Colleen Kinzley, Founding Member Tembo Preserve & Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Oakland Zoo

Territorial and courtship displays occur in a wide array of species. In some species, individual males have been observed to selectively favor particular behaviors and/or vocalizations, making them unique to that individual male. Male chimpanzees, for example, are known to have particular components of aggressive or territorial displays that they favor and perform more often or even to the exclusion of other display behaviors. Some have even been documented creating their own display behaviors or incorporating some unique part of their surroundings. Many song bird males create unique variations on their songs differentiating them from neighbors of the same species.

African elephants live in matriarchal societies where young males leave their family group in their early to mid-teens. During their late teens and twenties, they spend their social time in loosely formed bachelor groups. Elephants continue growing throughout their lives; males in their teens and twenties are considerably smaller than bulls in their thirties and above, so these younger males typically have little opportunity to breed. Males over 25 years of age engage in periods of sexual activity and sexual inactivity. Periods of sexual activity are simply defined as time spent with females groups. During these periods, males may or may not be found in the company of other males but are consistently seen with female family groups.

African elephants spend much of their time on the move, sometimes walking many kilometers between resources such as food, water, and shade over the course of a day or two. They are also a migratory species, sometimes moving hundreds of kilometers seasonally to take advantage of rain or other resources. For sexually active males, estrous females represent a scarce and mobile resource. Musth is a unique strategy developed by male elephants to increase their reproductive success.

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

Musth and Male Elephants

A bull is considered to be in a state of sexual inactivity when he is not keeping company with females.  In this case, he may be solitary or in the company of other bulls. Alternatively, sexually active males may or may not be in a state of musth. During musth, some individual bulls display unique behavior or behavior patterns just as males of other species are found to exhibit unique behavioral displays.


Characteristics of Musth

Musth is a physiological and behavioral state resulting from highly elevated testosterone levels compared to non-musth sexually inactive bulls. Musth has two outward defining characteristics: urine dribbling and the secretion of glands located in the temporal region of the head. The rate of urine dribbling, characterized by constant seepage from the retracted penis, can be variable but any amount of urine dribbling indicates that a bull is in a state of musth . From a distance, bulls in heavy musth can most easily be identified by the shiny, dark appearance to the inside of their legs, caused by the constant urine spray on their legs,

The constant seepage of urine can result in a whitish to greenish film around the opening of the penis sheath. This urine build up on the legs and sheath results in a distinct pungent odor. Musth temporal gland secretions are thick, sticky, dark in color, and have a strong odor. A bull in heavy musth may have a wide, wet, stain running from the temporal gland down to the lower jaw. Older bulls may develop very swollen temporal glands filling in the normal indentation of the skull above the temporal gland and behind the eye. These swellings increase the size of the forehead making the bull look even larger.

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Who Exhibits Musth?

The period of time in which males spend in musth lengthens as he ages and continues to grow in size age. Males may begin to show signs of musth in their mid-teens, but in these early years it may last only hours or days and the presence of a dominant male will likely inhibit musth in these younger bulls. The median age for the onset of musth is 29 years old. As males age they typically experience a longer musth period ranging from a median of 2 days for bulls 16-25years to 81 days for males 46-50 years old then declining to 54 days for males 51-60 years old. The consistency of musth periods also increases with age; for young males, their musth period is erratic, and opportunistic. They may be stimulated into musth by the presence of an estrous female then driven out of musth by the arrival of a musth male or other dominant males. As males mature, and depending on their ranking in the population, they will eventually establish a relatively predictable period of musth each year. The most dominant males in the population get the most optimal musth periods, typically during and immediately after the rainy seasons when the largest number of females come into estrous.

An older musth bull will out compete not only non-musth bulls but also younger musth bulls. In most observed matings, the bulls were over the age of 35 years and in musth. Recent genetic paternity analysis of a well –studied population confirms these observations with 74% (88/119) of the calves sired by musth bulls.

Musth is an energetically expensive condition and even the most dominant males in a population typically can only maintain musth for a few months. Musth bulls spend less time feeding, more time on the move, and more time chasing, or fighting with other males resulting in a loss of condition.


Female Elephants Choose Mates

Females demonstrate choice through their participation or lack thereof with a potential mate. Courtship begins with urine and genital testing; an attractive female is first followed then chased by a male suitor. Smaller and faster than most males, the female is able to out run the male if she does not chose to stand for breeding.

For females, it is advantageous to consort with musth males and they demonstrate a preference for musth males. For example, during the period of consortship with a musth male, the female is not harassed by multiple, often young, males who are also perusing her. In addition, a musth bull represents a fit male, as only older, healthy males come into musth. The increased levels of testosterone that are characteristic of the musth condition also increase the bull’s fertility by increasing his sperm count, increasing the probability of successful fertilization of the females eggs.

So for both males and females the phenomenon of musth represents an effective reproductive strategy… even if it is not suitable materials for a Hallmark Valentine’s card!


Director of Animal Care at Oakland Zoo “I was trained to use bullhooks on elephants” and why I’m advocating for a bullhook ban now

by | November 26th, 2014

This photo was NOT taken at Oakland Zoo. This is a photo from In Defense of Animals showing trainers using a bullhook on a young elephant.

There is great news for people against cruelty to animals! The City of Oakland has introduced an ordinance to protect elephants and BAN THE BULLHOOK. This is the tool that trainers in circuses, entertainment and still a few zoos use to control, punish and intimidate elephants. See video of trainers in CA training elephants for performance  (WARNING – this video is graphic). We have a rare opportunity to bring this horrible abuse to an end here in Oakland but we all must act. Oakland Council Members Gallo and Kalb have agreed to sponsor an ordinance to ban the bull hook in Oakland. A similar ordinance just past in Los Angeles which is the first big city to pass such a ban. The time is right for Oakland. Please take a few minutes of your time to contact the Oakland City Council members – and if you can – to attend the Oakland City Council meetings on December 2nd and December 9th.

I have been caring for elephants in the zoo setting for over 30 years, early in my career I was trained to use a bull hook. It is an instrument designed to cause elephants pain by jabbing and hooking them with the sharp ends and using the stick portion to hit them. I was taught to jab and hook the elephant with the sharp metal parts on the most sensitive parts of the body. If an elephant did not immediately obey it would be hit with the stick as punishment. We worked inside the enclosure with the elephants with no barrier between us and the elephants. If an elephant did not obey right away it was thought to be challenging the keeper’s dominance so it would be punished by repeatedly hitting it with the bull hook.


Colleen Kinzley (center) speaking at the (Oakland Zoo hosted) press conference to ban the bullhook in Oakland.

Colleen Kinzley (center) speaking at the (Oakland Zoo hosted) press conference to ban the bullhook in Oakland.


In January of 1991 one of my coworkers at the Oakland Zoo was killed by one of the elephants when he told the elephant to back up and instead the elephant knocked him to the ground and killed him. It was a terrible tragedy but because of the danger to keepers Oakland Zoo became the first zoo to use a new method called Protected Contact (PC) to care for the elephants. In Protected Contact the keepers interact with the elephants through a barrier. The keepers are safe so there is no reason to have such strict and aggressive control over the elephant’s behavior. In PC the keepers use only positive reinforcement training, never any physical discipline or dominance. The elephants can choose to participate or not, if they participate they get tasty treats, if not the keeper will try again later or ask them to do something else.


Very quickly after changing to PC we saw the tremendous benefits to the elephants; we could still care for them but they would never again be hit, jabbed or dominated. The elephants personalities really blossomed in the new system, they were able to behave like elephants, express their emotion, and do what they wanted to do.


For many years I have been advocating to end the use of the bull hook. As an expert witness in many cases of abuse related to bull hook use, I have watched many hours of undercover video some very recent. I know that still today the bull hook is a tool used to cause pain and suffering. Dominance and intimidation is the standard form of handling and training when the bull hook is used. All animals deserve our respect and to live without the daily abuse that occurs when the bull hook is used.

OAKLAND RESIDENTS (especially) and Bay Area residents need to show the strong community support for this ordinance. This elephant protection ordinance would hold circuses to the elephant husbandry standard set by the Oakland Zoo, which manages its elephants using cooperative, non-violent, positive-reinforcement-based methods. To see exactly how we train our elephants this way, watch this short video of our Lead Elephant Keeper, Gina Kinzley training one of our African Elephants. 

So please take the time to help BAN the BULL HOOK in OAKLAND! Every individual can make a difference, whether it’s coming to the hearings about this ban on December 2nd and 9th, or writing/calling City Council members to let them know you support this ban.

City Council Meetings: The first hearing on this ordinance is before the Public Safety Committee on December 2, 2014 at 6 p.m. in the Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room – 1st Floor of City Hall; 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Please join us to show strong community support for this important legislation. The second Meeting will be on Tuesday December 9th before the entire council in the Council Hall. Please join Oakland Zoo and come to these meetings if you can.

The Ordinance has two co-sponsors on the City Council.


We know that Ringling Bros. Circus is working hard to kill this legislation.


IF YOU LIVE IN OAKLAND please call your council member and ask them to support this ordinance. If you live in either of the two co-sponsors’ district please call them and thank them for introducing this Ordinance. Find your Council District:

IMPORTANT: If you live in Council Member Larry Reid’s District

PLEASE CALL HIM and ask him to support this ban:

(510) 238-7007; E-mail:

VERY IMPORTANT: If you DON’T LIVE IN OAKLAND please send your messages of SUPPORT to the council members ONLY BY EMAIL.


Send an email to (or if you’re an Oakland resident, you can telephone):

Noel Gallo – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7005

Larry Reid – E-mail:; Phone:  (510) 238-7007

Dan Kalb – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7001

Libby Schaaf – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7004

Pat Kernighan – Email; Phone:  (510) 238-7002

Desley A. Brooks – Email:; Phone: (510) 238-7006

Rebecca Kaplan – Email:; Phone: (510) 238-7008

Casey Farmer, Policy Analyst – Email:; Phone: (510)238-7003

Talking Points:

  • Please support the proposed ordinance to ban the bullhook and help to protect elephants.
  • This elephant protection ordinance would hold circuses to the elephant husbandry standard set by the Oakland Zoo, which manages its elephants using cooperative, non-violent, positive-reinforcement-based methods.
  • The Oakland Zoo, Oakland SPCA and world-renown elephant experts including the PAWS Sanctuary support this important ordinance.
  • Please follow Los Angeles’ lead and Ban the Bullhook. Los Angeles stood up to Ringling Bros Circus’ threats of pulling its business – it’s time that Oakland do the same.

An Opportunity to Help Tigers Here in the US

by | August 26th, 2011

Photo courtesy of IFAW

Thousands of tigers are held privately across the US, more than what remain in the wild. They are often poorly cared for and irresponsibly bred. Tigers breed well in captivity, even under terrible conditions. Many of the cubs and the parents are destined to live out their lives in small, horrible facilities. These animals are sold as pets (yes many states allow this), perform in circuses, and are carted to malls and fairs. Often, the tiger cubs are used to make money through photo opportunities.

You can help stop this practice by urging the USDA to increase their regulations for protecting all captive tigers. Please take a couple minutes (I did it, it only took 2 minutes) to let the USDA know you support changes to protect all captive tigers.



Colleen Kinzley

Curator at Oakland Zoo


Find out more information on how to take action from Fred O’ Regan, IFAW President.

Click here to link to IFAW information.


Don’t Support the Circus

by | August 1st, 2011

You may have seen the ads that the Circus is in the Bay Area. For me it is a sad reminder that many elephants, tigers and other wild animals still suffer miserable lives in the circus.

For example the elephants spend most of their lives confined by short chains, and rarely, if ever, get to do normal elephant behaviors like grazing on grass or swimming. They are also forced by trainers to do unnatural and sometimes dangerous behaviors like standing on small tubs and turning in circles, or forming a chain of elephants; each elephant standing her front feet on the back of the other. The circus trainers use bullhooks, a stick with a sharp hook and point, to punish the elephants if they don’t do what the trainer wants them to do. For more information about the suffering of wild animals in entertainment visit the Animal Defenders International website at

Human circus performers perform by choice and are wonderful to watch. Be sure if you go to a circus it is one of the fabulous animal free= cruelty free circuses like the Pickle Circus and Cirque du Soleil.

Keep Your Eye to the Sky

by | April 17th, 2010

Barn Swallow, Photo credit Jason Loy

By Jason Loy, Animal Keeper at Oakland Zoo

Have you ever looked up in the sky, seen a flock of birds flying overhead and wondered where they were going? Perhaps they were headed south for the winter and to warmer climates, flying northward in the spring, preparing to find a mate, or merely looking for the day’s meal. Whatever the case may be, witnessing a flock of birds soaring by is always a sight to behold and there is no better day to celebrate this fact then on International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD).

Based around the second Saturday of May each year (this year it will take place on the 8th), IMBD is a celebration across the Americas of the nearly 350 migratory bird species that grace our skies and the conservation efforts that support them. Since its creation in 1993 by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, IMBD continues to grow with an estimated 500 reported events occurring in 2007 and hundreds of thousands of people participating nationwide. Organized currently by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Migratory Bird Management, this day consists of all of the different activities and ways birds are observed and cherished. Everything from bird walks and counts, fairs and festivals put on by local organizations, photo contests, kids games, habitat restoration projects and cleanups, and live music and performances can be considered as a part of the celebration.

Black Phoebe, Photo credit Jason Loy

Each year has a different theme for IMBD and the theme for this year is “The Power of Partnerships”, which highlights the partnerships that allow bird conservation programs to be successful. For example, the Oakland Zoo partners with bird-friendly organizations like the American Bird Conservancy and the Ventana Wildlife Society, which do great work and research to make the lives of birds better.

The Oakland Zoo is also a great place to view different native and migrating birds. Not only does the zoo have quite a number of different species, there were also an estimated 47 different wild species seen within the zoo grounds and surrounding areas during last year’s Christmas Bird Count. With everything from hawks and turkeys to hummingbirds and warblers, the Oakland Zoo continues to be an excellent habitat for birds.

For more information and to find other events near you, head to online, or check out one of the other links below.