Author Archive

Let Elephants Be Elephants

by | June 20th, 2011

Here at the Oakland Zoo we have strong beliefs and views on animal welfare. We do everything we can to provide our animals with what they need, including space with the appropriate substrates, social dynamics, as well as enrichment and training for both physical and mental stimuli. Everything we do takes into consideration the health and well-being of the animal as well as the safety of the keeper. Wild animals can be dangerous and in no way should be treated like a pet. We work with them in a protected contact type of management to ensure our safety and theirs. You might be thinking why does the animal need to be safe? Aren’t you the one in

danger? The answer is yes. I am in danger should I walk into an enclosure and right up to an animal, but for me to be able to do that involves punishment on the animals part. If you have been to a circus before you have seen all the different animals they work with up-close and personal. This is not because the animals enjoy being in the circus and close to their handlers; this is because the animals are forced and beaten to behave.

Since I am an elephant keeper, let’s talk about elephants specifically. Working with the largest land mammal on earth is definitely intimidating. People think they are gentle giants but more often they are extremely dangerous. For decades these intelligent creatures have had to put up with being in the circus where their handlers have abused them into submission, beating them with what is called an “ankus” or “bullhook”. When you see the handlers inside the enclosure working directly with the elephant, this is called a free contact type of management.

Most often these elephants are beaten and abused, screamed at, and chained up for hours on end. There are hours of caught on tape footage from animal welfare groups of elephants being beaten for just standing and minding its own business. This is so the handler can keep the elephant in check, so that it never knows when it’s going to get hit. The reason for this abuse is so the handler can be dominant over the elephant so the handler doesn’t get killed. There is no reason for this type of management. If you have to abuse an animal just to get what you want it to do then you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Unfortunately this type of management system is still used in zoos today. Although not all of these facilities may be heavy handed, there is still always a danger of working with a 10,000 pound animal directly, which is why a keeper or circus handler is killed every year.

John Briggs, Elephant Keeper, demonstrates the use of target training with positive reinforcement. Osh presents his foot to the target and he gets a treat.

At Oakland we use a management system called Protected Contact. This style means that we only use positive reinforcement, and are always protected by a barrier whether it be spatial or with fencing. When we ask our elephants to do something they are always reinforced with treats. This keeps us and the elephants safe. When we are training we stand outside the fence line and use target poles, which are a long piece of bamboo or rake handle with a soft tip, to target a part of the body that we need. Most of our training is for husbandry and health purposes, but we do fun stuff as well such as catching a stick in the trunk or picking up an object when thrown. Fun stuff is okay as long as it is not strenuous on the elephants. A lot of the behaviors you might see in the circus such as legs stands are taxing on the joints and in the long term can cause arthritis and all other types of health issues.

Oakland Zoo elephants grazing on two acres of grass. This is what you would see in the wild.

So if this protected contact management style is so much better why doesn’t everyone use it? I don’t have a good answer for this other than selfishness. Free contact handlers think since they are in the same space they have a better relationship with the elephant, and that they can accomplish more with the animal behavior wise. There’s no reason to work in the same space as an elephant if it means that I have to abuse it and it might someday snap and kill me. At our facility we can accomplish anything we train, such as foot care, blood draws, ultrasounds, etc. I would rather see an elephant out on 6.5 acres grazing and browsing and interacting freely with one another, than standing next to me in fear, wearing some silly outfit, chained up for hours on end, performing unnatural tricks for profit. So, please support the Oakland Zoo and let elephants be elephants! Don’t go to the circus, the cruelest show on earth! Support your local non-animal circus’ such as Teatro Zinzanni and Cirque de Soleil. A huge thank you to those of you that attended our Annual Celebrating Elephants Fundraiser. We have raised more than 200,000 dollars over the past fifteen years and all of the proceeds go toward world renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss’ Amboeseli Elephant Trust, protecting African Elephants through conservation and research.

On July 23, bring the family to the Oakland Zoo for Feast for the Beasts. The public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 through the door (door opens at 9:00am) will receive a ticket to place produce in the elephant exhibit! Once all the produce is in place, guests can watch the elephants goggle down grapes, watermelon, apples, lettuce, carrots, and treats. The elephant feeding is so much fun. Be sure to get to the Zoo by 9:00am to be a part of the produce spreading at the elephant exhibit.

Elephants Love Trees, Pumpkins, & Produce

by | February 25th, 2011

Finally, the holidays are over and the Christmas trees (and pumpkins !) are coming to an end. This year we had two companies that generously donated and dropped off over four-hundred trees combined. This operation is a win-win

Donna chews on a Fraser Fir, her favorite! Photo by author.

situation for all as it saves the tree companies from having to deal with the leftovers and provides the zoo with lots of fun enrichment for the animals. After the animals are done with the trees they are hauled off in our green waste dumpster and re-used for wood chips.  We were able to be a little pickier this year as to what type of trees we accepted as the main animals that use the trees

M'Dunda savors the moment. Photo by author.

are the elephants and they have grown to be quite picky with their menu. We took about two-hundred small pine trees from Brent’s Christmas Trees, and over two-hundred Noble Firs from Simonous Quality Christmas Trees. The elephants prefer the Noble and Fraser Firs to the Douglas Fir. Maybe they like the strong fragrance of the previous two better? I don’t know for sure, I didn’t try them myself. They enjoy eating the bark off of the trunk and then stripping the needles off the branches. The keepers started off giving each elephant at least five trees a day, but if your mom gave you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich everyday wouldn’t you get tired of it too? So they don’t go after the trees with the same vigor they did in the beginning but there are only fifty or so left to feed out, thank goodness. Sometimes a little honey or jelly smeared on the branches helps! You’ll see the trees hanging as food or a scratching post in the elephant and giraffe exhibits, as a home for a bird in one of our aviaries, or as a treat hiding place for many of the other animals in the zoo, but only for a couple more weeks. So hurry and come visit us, especially while the sun is still shining!

Donna wraps her trunk around Osh. Photo by author.

Come and join us for our Feast for the Beasts daytime event on Saturday, March 26. The public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 people through the door get to place their produce inside the elephant exhibit before the hungry herd arrives. Come see how an elephant munches an entire watermelon. It’s definitely something kids love to see. Feast for the Beasts begins at 9:00am.

How Much Pumpkin Can an Elephant Eat?

by | December 23rd, 2010

Osh hopes to get a pumpkin suspended in a hay net.

Well it was another long and exhausting pumpkin season for Animal Keepers at the Oakland Zoo this year. Due to the rain this fall, our usual local patches didn’t have quite the numbers that they normally do so we drove a truck and trailer all the way out to Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay to top off our supply just to make sure it will last through the spring.  There were lots of helping hands this year . . . literally. The Animal Management Department staff and volunteers generously gave their time throughout our “pumpkin run” days to help load and unload one by one over two thousand pumpkins. We can’t just dump them on the ground from the truck, or they will crack and rot, so they have to be carefully unloaded and placed on wooden pallets to ensure their safety. After three long and exhausting days, the animals are reaping the benefits. From decorative furniture, to puzzle feeders, to popsicles, everybody gets to share in the fun. If you missed out on Boo at the Zoo, not to worry, we’ll be giving our animals pumpkin enrichment

Keepers and volunteers help unload just a small portion of donated pumpkins.

for months to come. Oakland Zoo would like to say a huge thank you to all the patches that donated this year: Moore’s Pumpkin Patch, Pick of the Patch Pumpkins, Speer Family Farm, Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm, Piedmont Avenue Pumpkin Patch, and especially Alden Lane Nursery for donating pumpkins before Halloween for our annual Boo at the Zoo event. Stay tuned for Christmas tree enrichment fun . . .

Oakland Zoo: A Pumpkin Paradise

by | October 20th, 2010

After crushing a huge pumpkin, M'Dunda gets a mouthful!

Once a year around this time, the Oakland Zoo Keepers seek to find as many pumpkins as possible.  On November 1st you might see three large OZ dump trucks on the freeway stacked with hundreds of pumpkins in tow. The next few days after Halloween are busy ones for us, as we make multiple runs to the local patches back and forth from the zoo. This is a huge task which requires lots of helping hands, strong biceps, and aching backs. When the trucks are loaded and on their way back to the zoo, a call is made to the rest of the keepers, staff, and volunteers, who all meet in one of our four pumpkin zone designated areas. An assembly line is created from the truck bed to the ground where pumpkins which can weigh well over sixty pounds are passed from person to person and then gently placed down to prevent them from cracking and rotting. Strenuous and timely, the keepers are exhausted, sore, and satisfied, knowing that they got a good work out and they are going to make their animals very happy with fun enrichment in many forms. From birds to bears and elk to elephants there are many animals here that enjoy the pumpkin in its many forms. The keepers get creative in all sorts of ways to entertain the animals. Since many of the smaller animals can’t eat the pumpkins, the keepers will carve shapes into the pumpkin, hide food treats inside, then close it up again so the animal has to find the food inside. For the birds it can be used as a new obstacle or piece of

Heath, river otter, finds food treats hidden inside and outside of a pumpkin.

furniture in their habitat, or as a house, and the seeds can be saved and fed out. The bigger hoof stock and elephants love to eat them. If you visit you might see the elephant keepers at the top of the exhibit bowling the pumpkins out into the habitat, as the elephants chase after them. Another elephant favorite is the pumpkin popsicle. These are popsicles that are filled with chunks of fruit and diluted kool-aide, which are then frozen and hung from a piece of chain. The fun part of this pumpkin form is that it makes it difficult for the elephants to eat them quickly. After about twenty minutes of tusking, stomping, and throwing, the pumpkin finally starts to give and the elephants are refreshed with the homemade goody. To some animals like the tigers, the pumpkins can be a fun cat toy to bat around and claw at, and even sometimes munch on! Halloween is a fun and creative time for us here at the zoo, but it also takes a lot of time, dedication, and team work! Thank you to all the patches that have donated pumpkins. Come join us in costume and collect treats on October 30th and 31st for our annual Boo at the Zoo family fun event!

Happy Sweet Sixteen Oshy!

by | May 23rd, 2010

Osh enjoying his meadow standing at 9'10", photo by author

We are celebrating Osh’s sweet sixteen on May 24th by spoiling him with lots of his favorite treats, like usual, since he’s the only boy elephant at the Oakland Zoo. Weighing in at 10,100 pounds and standing at 9 feet 10 inches tall, the studly young man is all legs. His father Yossi, of Israel, is thought to be one of the tallest bulls in captivity standing at about 12 feet tall. When Osh arrived he was only eight feet tall and about seven thousand pounds. We project that when Osh is thirty years of age he will be as tall as his father, and continue growing!

Osh came to us from Howletts Wild Animal Park all the way in England. While at Howletts, Osh was housed with his mother and aunties but was coming of age and beginning to be kicked out of the herd. This is a natural occurrence in the wild where the females will start to kick out the young males from nine to twelve years of age. The young males then go

Osh when he first arrived to OZ in 2004, photo by Todd Hollerson

on to seek out new territory, learn from older males, and find new females. Osh needed a new home, so our keepers flew out to Howletts in 2004 and brought him home by plane, ferry, and truck, a very long and exhausting journey.

Everyone took a liking to Osh, everyone but Donna, our dominant female. During the first introduction she chased him around the yard and then knocked him to his knees. They did not have full access to each other for two years, until after a year of cooperative feeding training, wherein they were successfully reintroduced. This type of training teaches the dominant animal to allow the subordinate to stand close by while receiving food treats without being aggressive. Osh now has the closest relationship with Donna amongst the girls. She often times backs into him and even shys away from him when food is involved even though he is never aggressive toward her. He is still subordinate to Lisa and M’Dunda, but frequently solicits play with them over the fence line during the evening, and even with M’Dunda on exhibit during the day.

Osh gently rubs his ear on Donna, photo by author

Osh is a very playful young boy, loves interaction with both his keepers and the other elephants. He enjoys long walks in the grass and hours of grazing and browsing. Palm, birch, and elm are a few of his favorite trees to eat. He has been spotted in the pool a few times now thrashing around with his feet and trunk just for fun. When he walks he loves to bobble his head, and hangs his head very low, giving him the appearance of being shorter than the females. The top of his left ear is folded over the wrong way from birth and his right tusk is very small and downward pointing making him easy to identify. So far he has not shown any behavioral signs of musth, although his testosterone levels have been as high in comparison to bulls in captivity that have been in musth.  He has a very playful demeanor as a sixteen year old boy does, so we often call him a punk, even though he’ll always be our little boy.

Yummy, Yummy, in the Elephants Tummy

by | April 5th, 2010

Donna feasting while visitors watch, photo by author

Feast for the Beasts was a big success yet again, with four hungry elephants, and what looked like four hundred eager visitors ready to work. While the elephants watched from afar, two large groups of zoo visitors, one at a time, trickled into the enclosure. They were then explained the guidelines, and had fifteen minutes to scatter and hide the produce they provided around the elephants habitat far and wide. It was amazing to watch everybody split off into different areas of the yard. The smiles on the young children’s faces were priceless as they got to choose what fruit or veggie they were going to hide and where they were going to hide it. Under a rock? In the pool? Buried in the grass? Produce was everywhere! Amongst the favorite of the elephants were several melons, pumpkins, and pineapples.

A Dad and his son choose which yummy item to hide, photo by author

The best part about this day is that the elephants know what is happening because as soon as the keepers shift them, they race as fast as they can up the path into the exhibit, and seek out the best produce. Each elephant split off into different directions shoving trunkfuls of yummies into their mouths as fast as possible. There was even a little rivalry between Osh and M’Dunda. This spread kept them occupied for a couple of hours, and the keepers fed them a little less produce throughout the rest of the day so they wouldn’t have upset tummies.

The keepers and staff would like to send a huge thank you to all the visitors who came out, donating their time and groceries, to give the elephants a very special and exciting day. We would also like to thank all the volunteers who helped make this day a success, whether by sorting produce, collecting tickets, or helping guide our guests. Our next Feast for the Beast event is Saturday, July 17.