Author Archive

Pachyderm Podiatry

by | April 13th, 2013

I recently attended the 2013 Elephant Care Workshop at the Phoenix Zoo. The Workshop is put on by the zoo’s highly

Indu, one of the three beautiful Asian female elephants of the Phoenix Zoo.

Indu, one of the three beautiful Asian female elephants of the Phoenix Zoo.

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

Jessica, one of the five dedicated Elephant Keepers, giving the daily pedicure at the Oakland Zoo.

Jessica, one of the five dedicated Elephant Keepers, giving the daily pedicure at the Oakland Zoo.

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.

M'Dundamella atop the hillside grazing.

M’Dundamella atop the hillside grazing.

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.

Donna dusting to keep her skin protected.

Donna dusting to keep her skin protected.

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

Osh browsing.

Osh browsing.

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.

Growing Up Oshy

by | October 31st, 2012

The time we’ve all been anticipating for years has finally arrived; Osh has now experienced his first musth. Bull elephants, both African and Asian, go through a period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity, or musth. Similar to that of a rut in hoofstock species, this is a period when bull elephants more actively compete for, seek out, and guard estrous females. Musth was first described in African Elephants in 1976 by elephant expert Joyce Poole and is characterized physically by stinky temporal

Osh, 18 years old, 10’3″ tall, 11,300 lbs.

drainage and swollen temporal glands, urine dribbling from the sheath, along with several specific distinct displays of behavior as well as heightened aggression toward other bulls. When a young bull goes into his first musth it generally only lasts for a few days or weeks as they come in and out of it. Bulls typically go into their first musth from the years of 18-25. At 18 years, standing at 10 feet 3 inches tall, and weighing in at 11,300 lbs, Osh seems to be experiencing similar patterns to that of the wild. Although catching the eye of the females will be much easier for him, since he won’t have any competition.  Older males with more experience can go into musth for up to several months, with the most successful breeding males in their forties. Females prefer musth males to non-musth males, although those not in musth may also breed successfully. About a week prior to being official we noticed an increased amount of temporal drainage from Osh’s temporal glands. We continued to observe heavy temporal drainage with a specific musky odor, which was followed by a wet sheath and a small amount of urine dribbling. Throughout the next two weeks we continued to observe these physical changes, sometimes the urine dribbling heavier, completely wetting down the insides of Osh’s legs. These are physical changes you can look for if you see him on exhibit. As of yet, we have not noted any dramatic behavioral changes which may change as time goes on. This is a very interesting time for the elephants as well as the keepers as we witness Osh go through a new chapter in his life.

Celebrating Success, Celebrating Elephants 2012

by | August 20th, 2012

Cynthia Moss (center), visits with the Oakland Zoo Elephant Management Team / Photo: Stephen Woo

As you may already know the Oakland Zoo hosts two events to raise money for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya. Known as Celebrating Elephants, these event fundraisers are key factors in educating our visitors about captive elephant management and updating them on the status of African elephants in the wild (please see my previous blog, “Of Tusks and Terror” for more information on elephant poaching). All of the proceeds are given to the Trust and are used in various ways to fight for the protection of these majestic creatures. We are very proud to report that this year between our Celebrating Elephants Day and our evening lecture we raised over twenty-one thousand dollars, and overall have raised almost three-hundred thousand dollars in the past sixteen years.

Volunteers helping with the evening. From the left, Rachel Piche, Cheryl Matthews (long term volunteer and Celebrating Elephants contributer), and keeper Stacey Smith / Photo: Gina Kinzley

 

This year we had the fortunate privilege to have Cynthia Moss as the keynote

Guests peruse auction items / Photo: Gina Kinzley

speaker at the evening lecture and silent auction. Cynthia, the founder of Amboseli Trust and a world-renowned elephant expert, shared wonderful pictures and stories of the current baby boom that is going on in Amboseli due to a good rainfall season. The camp and elephants have had a well deserved break from the fire and drought that had hit them in the previous few years. Not forgetting all the good news Cynthia reported, unfortunately we cannot ignore the incline in poaching for ivory that is happening all over Africa, Amboseli included. This gives us more reason to raise the funds we do so the park can hire the rangers they need to protect the elephants from illegal poachers.

Keeper Danielle Stith, and sister Stacey. The lovely bakers of our delicious bake sale / Photo: Gina Kinzley

Amongst good company, we had a lovely evening with cocktails, hor d’ourves , and a menagerie of auction items to bid on. A huge thank you to all of our sponsors; this event would not be possible without all of your generous donations. If you did not get a chance to visit with us this year, please join us in 2013. Whether you join us during the day with the kids, or have a date night out and attend the lecture, every contribution counts. A wonderful success for 2012, and a big thanks to everyone that helped!

Of Tusks and Terror: The Truth about Ivory

by | March 14th, 2012

The cross section of a tusk. If you look closely, you can see the diamond shaped pattern, also known as the Lines of Retzius, one reason why ivory is so desired.

What you might think you know about the ivory trade on African Elephants may be information of the past if you haven’t done your current research. Did you know that there are currently 40,000 African Elephants killed every year for their tusks? These incredibly high numbers are estimating that in fifteen years, African Elephants could be close to, if not extinct. Did you know that in the past decade the price of ivory has been driven from a measly twenty dollars to over fifteen hundred dollars per kilogram? The bau fa hu, or “suddenly wealthy” rapidly growing middle class in China has driven this price to skyrocket. Did you know that after China, the USA is the second biggest importer of illicit ivory in the world? Shame, shame. And for what? Greed? Wealth? Vanity?

In the late seventies an estimated 1.3 million African Elephants existed. Ten years later less than half remained, an average of 600,000. The cause? Poaching, second to habitat loss due to a doubling in human population.  Major public awareness campaigns were commenced worldwide to try and halt this vicious trade. The Amboeseli Elephant Research Project were critical players in the development of these campaigns and

African Elephant Distribution Map. Numbers are thought to be less than 400,000 total.

making people aware of and care about elephants. Proudly, in October 1989 at the seventh CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Convention of the Parties, governments banned the international trade of ivory. Other countries to the Convention, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France also began to ban any import as well. In that same year, Kenya made a bold statement by burning a stockpile of twelve tons of ivory, bringing together a large community of people with a shared interest of the survival of the species. What happened next? Exactly what was hoped for, the demand went down and ivory lost its value from 300 dollars per kilo to three dollars a kilo. Elephants could now live in peace, populations began to regenerate. Kenya, who had lost ninety percent of its elephants, from 167,000 down to 16,000, now thrives at 37,000. Although the ban was mostly successful, small amounts of poaching continued mainly in West and Central Africa, where local markets existed as well as small amounts of exports to the Far East.

As populations began to thrive again, what happened next? At the next CITES Convention in 1997, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe began to down list their elephants to a less endangered status. This meant less protection for the elephants. A year later, 190 tusks and additional pieces weighing a total of 1.45 tons was seized by Taiwanese port police. The same three countries listed above were given permission to sell stockpile ivory to CITES-designated buyers, 50 tons were exported to Japan. Other countries wanted to follow suit, as did South Africa in 2000. In June, 2002 6.5 tons of ivory was seized by Singapore authorities, the largest shipment of illegal ivory since the 1989 ban. Regardless of the increased illegal activity and confiscations, at the 2002 CITES meeting Botswana, Namibia, and

Ivory signature carvings, known as "chops" in China, and hanko to the Japanese. A sign of wealth.

South Africa was given permission to export 60 tons of ivory. This sale occurred in 2008, and over 108 tons went to Japan and China. Now we’re starting to see a pattern forming, aren’t we?  Giving these countries permission to sell the stock-piled ivory, in hopes of boosting the economy, only boosted Japan and China’s appetite for the ivory, increasing its value, therefore increasing the illegal activity as well. The more valuable the ivory becomes, the more elephants are being slaughtered.

So what is happening today? Do you want the bad news or the even worse news? An estimated 470,000 elephants remain today, which has gone down from an estimated 600,000 in 1989. According to scientist Sam Wasser, an estimated 38,000 are being killed every year for their tusks. Dr. Wasser is a ivory DNA specialist, in where he discovered how to find where seizures of ivory originated from according to the DNA of the ivory. This is an extremely valuable tool in pinpointing where illegal activity is occurring so governments can be questioned and more policing can occur. Between 2007 and 2009 over 2,000 confiscations have occurred, a large increase from years past. The demand in China has escalated since the stockpile sales, with ivory carving factories and sales on the rise. If only a small percentage of the 1.3 billion people of China purchase ivory, elephants are in big trouble. Ivory now sells for 1500 dollars a kilo in the Far East. Although on the ground in Kenya, its value is much lower, a small pair of tusks could bring a poacher as much as 400 dollars, more than a casual worker makes in a year.

The incentive is paramount.

Kenya takes another stand against the illegal ivory trade, another burning took place in 2011.

With more breaking news, there has been a massacre of over 400 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, over a period of just eight weeks. Illegal activity has been known to occur in this area, but not to this degree so quickly. Poachers are believed to have entered the park from the Chad border and were heavily armed, selling the ivory for money, guns, and ammunition. The total population of Cameroon’s elephants is believed to be as little as 1,000 individuals. In the past week over one hundred Cameroonian soldiers have been sent in to secure the park.

What can we do to stop these amazing creatures from vanishing? One easy way to help is to get the word out there. In such a technologically savvy world today, telling everyone you know about what you’ve learned about the current status of African Elephants is easy. Blog about it, facebook it, tweet it. Spread the word, and help make everyone aware!

Please join the Oakland Zoo in May for our annual Celebrating Elephants Day, where we increase public awareness about elephant welfare, and raise money for the Amboeseli Trust for Elephants.

Operation Pumpkin Pick Up

by | November 18th, 2011

Just some of the few dedicated Oakland Zoo staff and volunteers who made operation pumpkin pick up run smoothly. Photo by J. Moore.

After another bottle of Advil, it was yet another successful year of pumpkin gathering. Once again, the Oakland Zoo staff and volunteers made an endless team effort to make operation pumpkin pick-up run smoothly. We picked up well over a thousand pumpkins from small to extra large (the back-breaking kind). This doesn’t include the four giant boxes of mini pumpkins, holding at least a few thousand tiny morsels all together. The elephants especially love these bite-sized treats so if you come to the daily feedings you’ll probably see the keepers rolling the minis into the grass, providing the elephants with something like an Easter egg hunt. All of the animals benefit from the pumpkins which provide different types of enrichment from food to furniture to fun.

Pumpkins for months to come! Photo by author.

This is of important value to the zoo as the patches donate the remains after Halloween, which would otherwise most likely be composted. We would like to give special thanks to Johnnie Moore with Moore’s Pumpkins, Holly Prinz of Pick of the Patch Pumpkins, and Tommy Speer of Speer Family Farms, for their generous donations once again this year. Please come by and enjoy the pumpkin festivities for November and December.

Lisa elephant eats a decorated treat box, while her companions walk around in search for themed card board cut outs, candy corn, and festive popsicles. Photo by author.

With the sun shining brightly that weekend, I am happy to say that Boo at the Zoo was a huge hit this year. Hundreds of visitors gathered around to watch the animals get festive Halloween themed enrichment and pumpkins, participate in the costume parade, and get a treat bag with animal friendly, palm oil free candy.  You might have even gotten to see a keeper or two dressed up! Thanks to everyone who helped us celebrate the most fun holiday of the year!!

Fifteen Years of Celebrating Elephants

by | July 19th, 2011

Elephant Keepers Gina and Jeff explain the difference between free contact and protected contact management styles on a barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

Once again it was a successful year for our Annual Celebrating Elephants fundraiser. The event was split into two days; one full day at the Zoo where families came out to see fun enrichment for the elephants on exhibit, and also got the

Donna and Lisa enjoy twenty-five foot long tree trunks planted in the ground by their keepers. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

opportunity for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of our barn set-up, including a training and foot care demo with one of our elephants. Kids also had the opportunity to create fun enrichment boxes and bags for the elephants to eat, enjoy the animal-free Circus Finelli, and eat popcorn and cotton candy! The second part of the event was the evening lecture and silent auction where guests enjoyed wine and delicious appetizers while they bid on beautiful animal themed gift baskets, art work and photos. Most importantly, we had a guest speaker, the wonderful Winnie Kiiru, one of Amboseli’s top PhD students who studies and works to help with human-elephant conflict.   Winnie was a captivating and enthusiastic speaker, offering insight into the lives of the Maasai people and how they work to live with the elephants.

Jessica demostrates target training with Osh during a barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

This event is very important to the Oakland Zoo for two reasons. The first reason is that all the proceeds go to Cynthia Moss’s  Amboseli Trust for Elephants (www.elephanttrust.org ). Cynthia has been working on elephant conservation in Kenya for almost forty years; the longest running research study on African Elephants in the world. Mostly everything we know about these majestic creatures is due to Cynthia and her team’s effort and passion for the conservation and well-being of these animals.

The second reason for this event is to raise awareness of the cruelty to animals in circuses. During the behind-the-scenes barn tour, guests spend about thirty minutes learning how elephants should be managed in captivity through positive reinforcement and protective barriers. They are shown a training demo on how keepers can safely work with elephants in a gentle and positive way (See my Let Elephants Be Elephants blog for more details on this management style).

We are proud to say that this year we raised over 18,000 dollars for Amboseli.  All of the proceeds from the day and

Crowds of people watch Elephant Keeper John demostrating safe foot care during the barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

the evening events go directly to support Cynthia’s research to protect the elephants. Over the past fifteen years, we have donated more than $200,000 for Amboseli. Thank you to everybody who was able to make it to the day or the lecture. We hope you had lots of fun! If you didn’t join us this year make sure to come out next year (May 19 and 26, 2012) to help us celebrate how truly wonderful elephants are and to learn more about the Amboseli elephants by Cynthia herself. See you then!

Also, if you love to watch elephants. Don’t miss Feast for the Beasts on July 23. During this fun event, the public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 guests through the door will receive a special ticket that allows them to place produce inside of the elephant exhibit. Once all the produce in place, Zoo visitors get to watch our four elephants devour watermelons, apples, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, and much more. It is fun for the whole family. The doors open at 9:00am for Feast for the Beasts, so arrive early!