Archive for the ‘Volunteering’ Category

Solid Support for Yes on Measure A1

by | October 25th, 2012

I have been an Oakland Zoo Docent for 1 ½ years, have a zoo membership, and am proud to support the Zoo and Measure A1. As a volunteer, I have witnessed the enjoyment of all zoo visitors as well the educational programs it provides. To be clear, Measure A1 is a not about expanding the zoo. It is a $1 per month parcel tax that will allow the zoo to continue to maintain its superior animal care and extend educational programs throughout Alameda County. This measure should not be confused with the project that was previously approved in 2011 by Oakland Parks & Recreation, Planning Commission and the Oakland City Council which included construction of a new, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital which is near completion. These approval agencies and the Alameda County Superior Court judge all determined the zoo had met the requirements to proceed with a project that will benefit hundreds of thousands of zoo visitors. The Zoo is proud that Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Humane Society of the United States, as well as local education and animal rights advocates support A1. Other supporters are: 1) the East Bay Regional Park District, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, Sheila Jordan, and School Superintendents in every city of the County due to the critically needed environmental education it provides children, and 2) animal care organizations, including the Ventana Wildlife Society, the Felidae Conservation Fund/Bay Area Puma Project, and leading Veterinarians due to A1’s goal to provide humane animal care. These supporters understand the intention behind A1 and how the funds will be used. Please join me and others in support of one of Oakland’s leading cultural, educational, and animal care organizations by voting Yes on Measure A1.

— Ann Thomas, Oakland Zoo Docent

What Measure A1 Means for Tortoises

by | October 18th, 2012

Aldabra tortoises are among the largest in the world – sometimes weighing in at over 500 pounds! Anyone who has spent any amount of time with them will tell you that each one has a distinct and very interesting personality. In fact as a zookeeper, one of my favorite animals to introduce visitors to is the tortoises because I never get tired of seeing people fall in love with them.
The Oakland Zoo has six Aldabra tortoises ranging in age from 40 years old to more than 100 years old! Gigi – one of our middle aged tortoises (she’s about 80 years old) received a wound on her shell last year after one of the male tortoises was little rough in his mating ritual. Turtle shells take a VERY long time to heal and require x-rays to monitor the progress. Just try x-raying through the shell of a giant tortoise. It’s not easy and requires very special equipment -the type of equipment that we haven’t had on zoo grounds.
Last year, in order to monitor Gigi’s progress, we had to take her all the way to UC Davis where she could have a CT scan on their larger and stronger equipment. The scan showed us that our treatment was working, but now it is time to check on her again.
Moving a giant tortoise is no easy feat! It requires several people to lift and move her. Then we need a van that she will fit in and it has to have climate control because reptiles are ectothermic. Of course, it is also stressful on her to be removed from her group, make a two hour drive to Davis, be put into a large machine for the scan and drive two hours back to the Zoo afterwards. That’s a pretty crazy day for a tortoise.
If Measure A1 passes this November, our new veterinary hospital will be outfitted with a brand new high powered x-ray machine – one that will be capable of going through a giant tortoise shell. This means that Gigi will have a five minute drive to the hospital and be finished in less than an hour – rather than taking a full day! A great deal less stressful for her, which means improved animal welfare!

Gigi says “Vote YES” on Measure A1!

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 9, Savannah Module

by | May 11th, 2012

This is Franette Armstrong's last post in her diary of Zoo Ambassador training for the Savannah area of our Zoo.

 

 

 

 

 

Outrageous nests, forked tongues and pancakes were the topic tonight. Keeper Jason Loy and Zoological Manager, Michelle Jeffries, came to class to introduce us to the Reptiles and Birds of the Savannah.

Down in the Children’s Zoo we have dainty Black Tree Monitors but up here on the Savannah we have a 7-foot-long, 60-pound Black Throated Monitor. Monitors are the only species of Lizard that have forked tongues.

Forked tongues let the Black Throated Monitor capture scents and literally fork them into tiny holes leading to their nasal cavity. Photo Credit Steve Goodall

What is the purpose of a forked tongue? You might know, if you’ve been reading my ZAM blogs, that Snakes and Monitors have something called a Jacobsen’s Organ—a patch of sensory cells on the roof of their mouths. When they stick out their tongues, the forks catch moisture beads that have scent particles in them. Then the tongue brings them into the mouth where they are deposited into two little pits in this group of cells. From there they get processed as smells. Put in simple terms, Snakes and Monitors don’t breathe in odors—they taste them instead, and from two directions at once, a help in finding warm-blooded prey.

Our guy is related to Komodo Dragons and, like them, is nothing to be messed with out in the wild. He’ll give his opponents a tail whipping, a nasty bite, and carve them up with his claws for good measure. All these capabilities keep them from making ideal pets.

But that hasn’t saved them from the leather trade and sometimes they are killed just out of fear. All this plus habitat loss makes Monitors very threatened in the wild.

Flat and Happy

The opposite in size to our Black-Throated Monitor are our little Pancake Tortoises…the only turtles that can actually climb walls! These 7-inchers actually brace their shells against one side of a crevice and use their feet on the other side to propel themselves upward. And on flat ground they really move quickly, zipping under rocks and into crevices before a predator can say “what’s for dinner?”

Pancake Tortoises fill their lungs with air and their flat, slightly flexible shells expand to let them wedge tightly under rocks.

Because they are small and cute, Pancake Tortoises and their eggs are captured for the pet trade and they are also losing their turf to the lumber industry, so they too are a threatened species.

 

Flower Child

The opposite in size to our Pancake Tortoises is our African Spur Thigh Tortoise…the third largest Tortoise in the world, after the Galapagos and our Aldabras. These start out little (4-5” in diameter) so people buy them as pets not realizing that pretty soon they will weigh 100-200 pounds. As they can live 100 years or more, most owners get tired of them before the Tortoises get tired of living and then problem becomes, what do with old Torty? Sadly, the solution usually isn’t a happy one for Torty.

Tortoises love red and yellow fruits and flowers, so a favorite dessert is carrots and tomatoes. Ours is only 14 years old so she has a lot of eating ahead of her. Photo credit Steve Goodall

 

 

Because they are the most popular pet Tortoise in North America, Spur Thighs are nearly extinct in Africa. The best way to help them is never to purchase a wild-caught Tortoise, if you have to purchase one at all. You can always come visit ours!

 

Savannah Architects

We have two aviaries in the Savannah section of the Zoo and in them are some fascinating nest builders. I’ll just tell you about two and leave the rest for you to discover on your next trip.

Hammerkops are smallish brown crane-like birds who build such huge nests, and so many of them, that their nests become home not only to other birds, but to mammals, reptiles and insects— like snakes, owls, honey bees, mongooses and the cat-like Genets. Luckily for all these househunters, Hammerkops build nests constantly whether they need them or not.

Hammerkops got their name from the anvil shape of their heads

In the wild Hammerkop nests can be 6 feet wide by 6 feet tall and 45 feet up in trees.

Opposite in size are the fortress-like nests that Red-billed Hornbills construct. These hopping little ground birds create a nest and then the female goes inside and lets the male cement her in with clay he makes out of food, feathers  and dung, leaving only a tiny hole to feed her through.

The female sits in there, waiting to be fed, waiting for her eggs to hatch, and losing all her feathers (probably tearing them out from boredom!) until the babies are big enough to be left alone. Then she breaks out of the nest and she and her mate cement the babies in—again, leaving only a small hole to feed them through. Eventually the chicks get big enough to rebel and they start pecking their way out from the inside while the parents help them from the outside and the family is finally united.

In Africa, Hornbill feathers are highly prized for ceremonial headdresses and this is endangering the Hornbills. To help, a college professor has partnered with zoos to gather feathers that are dropped off these and other birds and give them to the Africans for their ceremonies. A small idea with a big impact!

You can see how Red-Billed Hornbills got their name. Photo credit Steve Goodall

 

 

And that is a central theme of so many conservation projects now going on to save African animals. One or a few people notice a problem (like snares capturing Chimps by accident) and come up with a solution (like training poachers to become snare removal troops and teaching them to raise goats so they don’t have to snare wild animals for food). From beehive fencing for protecting Elephants, to fuel-wood projects for protecting forest habitats, creative solutions that also help people are making a difference for animals.

Here at the Zoo we are supporting projects like this through our Quarters for Conservation program ((link)) and many fundraisers. If you’re looking for a chance to help all these animals, you can start right here.

 

Tonight was the last lecture in the Savannah module. On Saturday we give our final presentations and then we have a week to study for our final exam. After that, if we pass, we will be mentored by an experienced docent to make sure we are ready to roam the Savannah on our own.

 

Next stop? The Rainforest Module. Monkeys, Apes, Tropical Birds and….Tigers! As Tigers are my favorite animals, it is fitting that they should be saved for last.

 

See you in the Rainforest,

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 8, Savannah Module

by | May 3rd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is sharing her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training in this blog series.

 

 

 

A backstage tour of the Elephant barns is a privilege only a few volunteers ever get and our entire ZAM class got it today. It was a thrill.

I mentioned last time that Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research, was a major force in changing the way Elephants are treated in zoos. That’s because she was the second in the country to begin using a management technique called Protected Contact. We saw this in operation today.

Keeper Jeff Kinzley gives this foot on this Elephant a pedicure every single workday. We have four full-time Elephant Keepers and four Elephants, so each Keeper does the same foot on each Elephant daily to be sure there are no cracks, thorns or other problems. The feet need to hold up 4-5 tons of Elephant.

 

 

 

Trainers Have Choices

But let’s go back: today about half the zoos and all the circuses use Free Contact as a way of training and disciplining animals. With this method the trainer attempts to control the Elephant by inspiring fear with physical threats and aversion training techniques.

Want an elephant to lift her foot? Well, just jab her on her ankle with a pointed steel stick. She’ll jerk her foot away from the jab in self defense.

OR, you can simply invite the elephant to lift her foot by making it worth her while. With techniques like target training, the elephant associates making a certain move with getting a reward—food or attention—and so she wants to do it.

Keeper Gina Kinzley is taking our Elephant through a series of exercises for mental stimulation and to practice moves that might be needed for her medical care, like showing her foot. All she had to say was “switch” to get the other foot up. Note the strong barriers between her and the Elephant.)

 

Now imagine you’re an elephant and you have to do a bunch of things every day. If you are in a zoo, you need to go in and out of your barn, get your feet cared for, have a bath, get mineral oil rubbed on your skin and maybe have your ears, eyes or teeth checked. If you’re in a circus, you’re going to have to walk on your back legs, balance on a ball, let some woman ride on your back.

All these things, every day, can either be pleasant or unpleasant. You can either get rewarded for doing them, or punished if you don’t. Now ask yourself, in which of these conditions would you like to live your very long life?

That’s why, in 1992, Colleen instituted Protected Contact at the Oakland Zoo, making our Zoo the second in the nation to try it. It’s been working for 20

Cheri Matthews, a long-time Animal Management volunteer, helps with another Elephant's training by delivering the treats on cue as Gina explains the process

years and now, finally, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is mandating that all accredited zoos begin using these techniques by September of 2014. From the Elephants’ point of view, it can’t happen soon enough.

 

What are some of the hallmarks of Protected Contact?

First, there is an Elephant-proof barrier between the Keepers and the Elephants at all times or,  out in the exhibit, the Keepers maintain a distance of at least 20 feet. Our barriers are as high as the Elephants’ shoulders. Bathing and other longer procedures are done in a chute so the Keepers can move around the animal while staying protected.

 

“I’m done? Don’t be done!” This Elephant enjoyed her training exercises so much she didn’t want them to end.

 

Keepers use padded “target poles” and verbal cues to direct the Elephants to move. So, if they need to look at an Elephant’s eye, they might hold the pole near the side of the Elephant’s face so she can touch the pole. She’s rewarded with a whistle “bridge” and a little treat while the examination is conducted. Remember, the Keeper stays on the other of the fence.

Elephants get to decide what they do and when. Since the Keepers only ask them to do what’s in their best interest and  make it worth their while with treats, they generally decide to go along with the program. In fact, while I was watching one Elephant go through some mental stimulation activities, the others waltzed up and nudged into the space, wanting attention too.

 

Elephants are are never chained unless they are having a complicated medical procedure. In circuses and amusement parks, Elephants are tethered by chains around their legs nearly 100% of the time they aren’t performing. Imagine spending most of your life never being able to walk more than a few feet in any direction. Imagine how that would affect your health and mental attitude.

At the end of the day our Elephants return to their barns for a snack and 3-5 hours of taking the weight off. Jeff Kinzley shows us all the features of the new HUGE barn that is now the night-time home of our male Elephant.

This is the new barn for our male Elephant that's nearly 1200 square feet. There are three large skylights, and two steel doors, one hydraulic, the other manual. The floor is about four feet of sand, with one corner of the stall sloped to about six feet. Sand is much easier on their feet, and having a slope makes it easier for an elephant to get up and down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why don’t all trainers use Protected Contact?

Well, for one thing, it takes time and Elephants are expensive to feed. So if you want to make a profit off them, you’re not going to mess around with humane training techniques. And if you want to make sure (or try to make sure) that your performers and trainers can work closely with the Elephants, you might think they need to be afraid of you.

In fact, keepers, trainers and circus performers are killed every year by Elephants during Free Contact. Sometimes it’s just pure rage and revenge and sometimes it’s an accident. In either case, the Elephant is usually the one that is punished.

If you need proof of what an angry Elephant can do, watch this shocking video we were assigned in class, but warning: it is  disturbing and very sad. http://www.spike.com/video-clips/ur3qj9/most-dangerous-animals-elephant-attack

 

What Can We Do?

One way to stop the for-profit entertainment industry from abusing animals is to stop buying tickets to circuses and places where people can ride on Elephants all day long. We can go to events like Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus which don’t rely on animals for entertainment. And we can teach our friends and family that it’s not OK to bully wild animals into performing. Maybe by the time they grow up, this will all be history. Greece recently banned animals from circuses, so there’s hope for the Western World.

The Zoo supports PAWS which helps animals in the entertainment industry. Both Colleen and Dr. Parrot, Executive Director of the Oakland Zoo, have testified in front of Congress to try to stop the abuses animals suffer as performers. Right now there’s a bill in front of Congress to stop the abuse of traveling animals. To learn how you can help get this important legislation passed, please go to http://www.pawsweb.org/animals_in_traveling_shows.html.

The Oakland Zoo’s Elephant care program has won the endorsement of PETA.

 

I’m so proud to be working in a Zoo that has such a long history of using civilized animal management techniques. And it’s not just with the Elephants, but with all our potentially dangerous animals. Keepers do bond with all their charges, but they never forget that they are working with wild animals—and they really don’t want to change them. They are perfect just as they are.

 

Next week, Birds and Reptiles on the African savannah.

Until then,

 

Volunteering, Zoo Ambassador Training, elephant, elephant barn, protected contact, target training, Colleen Kinzley, Jeff Kinzley, Gina Kinzley

Behind-the-Scenes: Animal Commissary

by | May 2nd, 2012

Zoo Ambassador Franette Armstrong is taking us backstage in this new blog series.

 

 

 

 

Iron Chefs step aside…your challenges are nothing compared to the daily mission of feeding over 400 animals of 160 different species two to three meals a day.

And you think combining tripe with chocolate is a problem? Try satisfying omnivores who need a dozen different foods in different amounts plus nutritional supplements and snacks!

Chris Angel, primary commissary keeper, demonstrates the three different ways fish is cut up for different birds who need it to resemble what they’d find in nature.

 

 

That’s Logistics

Chris Angel is one of a team of commissary keepers who are in charge of making all this happen.  The commissary team translates the requirements of the Zookeepers into orders from suppliers and then makes sure every area of the Zoo has exactly what they need when they need it. Oh…and they have a food budget to worry about, just like any of us.

Chris’ background? After college he learned management in a factory and butchering in a meat department and volunteered for us. Then he entered the Zoo’s Internship program and before he knew it…he was on staff.

Career advice: “Degrees are valuable, but so is experience. My advice to anyone wanting a job here is to get involved with volunteering,” he said. “Don’t give up. Just keep on coming.”

 

Two full- and two part-time staff, plus volunteers and interns, work multiple shifts preparing the food every single day of the year. Yes, even Thanksgiving and Christmas

 

AIRline Food

To give you a sense of how complex the diets of our animals are, check out this food prep schematic for our birds:

The colors in the chart represent trays and for each tray there’s a list of ingredients ranging from “Flamingo Fare” or “Pretty Bird” to fresh fruit and cooked vegetables. Some require a little romaine lettuce or meat. What turns Flamingos pink? Beta Carotene from shrimp in their food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Megan Frye, Night Keeper, prepares the trays for birds according to the detailed schematics.

 

 

 

 

 

This is where the bird trays end up...in one of our many aviaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picky Eaters…and Keepers

The Zookeepers help design the animal diets in collaboration with our veterinarians and Animal Care management staff. Once a diet is set, all three have to be involved in any changes to it. When the ingredients are finalized, the Commissary takes over and is responsible for obtaining all the food and nutritional supplements.

“A third of all the animal food is prepared here in the Commissary. The rest is prepared at the animal enclosures from the ingredients we supply,” Chris explained. “The hardest part of our job is not making the food, it’s satisfying the high standards of the animals and their Keepers.”

This is one meal for five Tigers. Animal Management staff and volunteers will divvy it up into individual servings.

 

Take an Elephant’s diet as an example: they mostly get hay and “browse” (leafy branches) but also get four buckets of chopped produce each day. The Keepers spread most of the food around the exhibit to give them the challenge of finding it.

Everything—even lettuce-- has to be cut to a predetermined size so it takes the animals longer to find and eat their food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Constant Supply

The Zoo keeps two weeks worth of essential supplies on hand at all times, just to be sure the animals won’t go hungry in an emergency. Beyond that, just-in-time orders are placed with local feed stores, and produce and veterinary distributors who, in turn, stock a supply of what we are going to need so that they have it when our orders arrive.

 

In the Animal Commissary there is an entire wall of kibble bins plus huge jars and barrels of food like birdseed and popcorn (no butter or salt and used only for snacks).

A big part of our animals’ diet is fresh fruits and vegetables and nothing less than human-grade will do. “If we wouldn’t eat it, they don’t get it,” Chris said.

To help meet the ongoing need for fresh produce we rely heavily on donated food. Grocers like Safeway, US Food Service, and AL Lunardi and Sons contribute hugely along with Niman Ranch and Prather Ranch. In addition,  growers, hunters, fishers and home gardeners donate boxes of meat, bones and fresh fruits and vegetables daily.

Volunteers sort the food and store it in coolers or freezers until its needed. Our Chimps get apples, and oranges plus three other fruits like berries and melon. Elephants get potatoes with their fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

Even California Fish and Game and Caltrans get into the act when they find a newly killed deer or turkey. “As sad as that sounds, animals like our Tigers and Hyenas need a variety of hoofstock and large bones.” At least this valuable food doesn’t go to waste.

We never take predator animals from these sources, however, because they can carry bacteria and viruses our Lions and Tigers are susceptible to and they are more likely to have been poisoned. Safety first.

Our utensil board rivals the famous Julia Child’s, though she probably didn’t have hacksaws on hers.

 

Fun Food

Yes, even Zoo animals appreciate a treat or a snack, and just like kids, they enjoying playing with their food. An important but fun job of the Commissary staff and Zookeepers is coming up with new ways to stimulate the senses and appetites of our animal residents.

“You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing everyday, and neither do our animals,” says Chris.

Popsicles are a huge hit with the apes, lemurs and elephants. Sun bears love to scoop peanut butter out of the bottom of jars with their long tongues, so we volunteers bring our leftovers in for them.

 

Our elephants will spend hours licking a popsicle like this one that’s made of fruit juice and then stuffed with fruits and kale. Once out of its container, the popsicle on its embedded rope will hang from a tree branch.

 

Out in nature food has to discovered or caught, so we try to bring some of that challenge into the animals’ daily lives. Keepers hide snacks or intriguing herbs in cardboard tubes. Interns and volunteers dye berries and grapes different colors and freeze them to spice up dinner trays.

The snack bar section of one of the freezers is home to some strange- looking treats. The ones with the ropes are for animals without hands.

 

 

These carrot popsicles will soon make an Otter or Meerkat a happy camper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Specialty Foods

Chris purchases exotic bird kibble, Marmoset Jelly and other prepared foods that are not easily replicated in our kitchen so that every animal’s dietary needs are met. Even ground beef comes from a veterinary food distributor because our tigers and lions not only require the meat, but also parts that  human hamburger doesn’t contain. The whole point is to closely replicate their diet in the wild.

Animals such as our Boas, which in nature consume live prey, are fed frozen mice here because catching food on the move is dangerous to the predator—it fights back—and we don’t want our animals injured. We defrost it for them before serving time—cold-blooded animals want warm food.

Live mealworms, crickets and goldfish are the only exception to the fresh and frozen meat we serve. They provide exercise and stimulation as well as nutrition to our otters, frogs and insects.

 

 

 

But this is not to say that people-food isn’t on the menu. In addition to their fresh food, our animals are given fig newtons (they are great for hiding vitamins and pills), gelatins, baby food, powdered sports drinks, spices and many other packaged foods you would recognize on your own pantry shelves.

Does this look somewhat like your own pantry? These foods are expensive so some of our wonderful volunteers go shopping weekly with their own money just so the animals can have them as treats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to Help Feed the Animals?

As you can see, feeding time at the Zoo is a community effort: It requires a huge quantity and variety of ingredients all the time and we rely on donations.

The Commissary will gratefully accept donations that are pesticide free.

If you are a fisher, hunter, or butcher, we may be able to use your  fresh or frozen overstock and raw bones.

If you’re an organic farmer, gardener, arborist or grape grower—or have friends who are—the animals would love your excess vegetables, fruits and nuts. The one thing none of our animals will eat is lemons and limes, which is a shame since so many of us have trees loaded with them.

If you are interested in donating give us a call Chris Angel at 510-632-9525 x 215.

Someone carved and donated a pumpkin “condo” to make our Meerkats’ day.

Flowers in your yard? Pick a bouquet for our animals. Most of our animals  would love your pesticide-free nasturtiums, roses, and dandelions.

Pruning your shrubs? We can take certain types of branches and leaves for our Giraffes, Goats and Zebra. Go to this page or call to find out if yours are edible.

Where to take donations? Small amounts can be dropped at our front gate. Even a few peaches or carrots are appreciated. For larger donations (bin size or more or frozen food), call Chris Angel at 510-632-9525 x 215 to arrange a drop-off.

 

 

We thank Steve Goodall, a local nature photographer,  for volunteering to take, and allow us to use, the photos for this article.

 

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 7, Savannah Module

by | April 5th, 2012

Franette Armstrong is taking us with her on her adventures in Zoo Ambassador Training.

 

 

 

Elephantasia…. The condition of being delirious with love for Elephants after tonight’s two-hour lecture on the world’s largest land mammals. Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research has been working with Elephants for over 25 years and played a major role in changing the way zoos take care of them today…and in the near future. We’ll be seeing the results of that on Saturday.

Colleen Kinzley, a recognized expert in humane Elephant care.

But first, let me introduce you to some things you might not know about these massive walking wonders and see if I can make you fall under their spell the way Colleen did for us.

 

 

Major Bigness

Elephants have huge heads, as we can see, but their skulls are light because they are honeycombed with open sinuses. The lower jaw is very dense, however, to support their heavy trunks.

Inside that skull is the largest brain of all mammals. It weighs about eleven pounds but is only about one-third developed at birth, so it has enormous learning potential, like humans do. Most animals are born with all the brain connections they will have their entire lives, while Elephants and humans learn as they go, create memories, and act on those memories. It might not be true that an Elephant never forgets, but we know for sure they are capable of creating vast memory banks over their 60-70 year lifespan.

An Elephant head is a major marvel. Photo credit Steve Goodall

The heart of an Elephant weighs up to 40 pounds. Their huge kidneys make about 13 gallons of urine daily! One hundred feet of intestines only absorb 40-60% of the nutrients they eat, which is one reason they eat constantly. In the wild, Elephants forage up to 17 hours a day. Here at the Zoo our Keepers feed them hourly from dawn ‘til nearly midnight and then put them to bed with snacks.

Major Specialization

We have already learned that Elephants are Keystone animals in their environments: If they disappear, the entire ecosystem around them is likely to collapse. One reason for this is that they bulldoze everything in sight, clearing young trees from the Savannah so that grasses can grow and grazing hoofstock will have food.

But eating branches all day long requires special chewing molars and Elephants get six sets of four over a lifetime. A single tooth can weigh about five pounds. Go lift a 5-lb barbell and imagine having a bunch of those in your head. Each oblong tooth starts in the back of the mouth and gradually moves forward until it breaks off and gets pushed out by another. This “teething” goes on for about 50 years!

This Elephant lower jawbone shows two molars. Photo credit Honolulu Zoo

 

Elephants also have huge ivory tusks, as we know. The tusks are extended incisor teeth made up of calcium phosphate soft enough to be carved, and that is the root of all their troubles. As useful as they are for breaking branches, fighting and digging, these tusks have led to more elephant deaths from poaching than any natural cause.

We only see 2/3 of the tusks as the rest is embedded in the skull. They can grow about 7 inches a year and weigh 130 pounds each, but if they break, the broken end doesn’t grow back and a break can lead to a jaw infection because the tusk is full of nerves and veins like our teeth.

Since Elephants don’t have chainsaws or shovels, their highly evolved trunks take the place of tools for reaching, digging, and clever manipulation of anything they want to turn into food, or tools. Their trunks are an extension of their nose and upper lip and contain over 150,000 muscle parts.

Elephants are either right- or left-tusked the way most people have a dominant hand. You can tell which is the dominant tusk because it will be shorter and smoother from the extra use. Photo credit Steve Goodall

 

 

 

Elephants can breathe underwater, using their trunks as a snorkel, and the trunks become showers, shovels and gentle hands to care for their calves, themselves and each other.

African Elephants have a “two-fingered” trunk unlike Asian Elephants which only have one finger. Photo credit Steve Goodall

 

 

 

 

 

These giants tred lightly on feet that walk like cats and dogs—on the balls of their toes—which are protected by a spongey pad and thick nails. When they step down their feet expand and when they lift them they get smaller, so this is why, as heavy as they are, they don’t get stuck in their mudbaths. Those feet, capable of holding up a 9000-pound animal, are very  important and our Keepers take foot care very seriously, giving each of our Elephants a pedicure every single day.

Elephants can stand up all day long without getting tired because they can lock their leg joints so their muscles stay relaxed. Though they can’t run, hop, or gallop, they can move nearly 25 miles mph in a gait that takes three of their feet off the ground at one time.

 

Elephant feet, capable of holding up a 9000-pound animal, are very important. Our Keepers give each of our Elephants a complete pedicure every single day. Photo credit Steve Goodall

 

Elephants communicate with infrasound— calls and rumbles that are so low in  frequency we can only “hear” them with electronics. These calls can travel several miles and Elephants use them to warn each other of danger (like bees and lions) and let each other know where they are.

 

Major Mating

Musth. That’s Hindu for “intoxication” and a male Elephant in musth is pretty much out of his mind with a sudden testosterone surge that can last two months or more. He’ll stop eating, rip through forests yanking out trees, fight any male that crosses his path, and concentrate only on getting every female to himself. He can lose 2000 pounds from all this excess energy.

And females actually consider these crazed musth males desirable—as mates, and as protection from the other suitors who would just as soon bug them night and day. All this works out because only the most fit males go into musth and the healthiest females get them for their mates, producing calves with the best chance of survival.

Elephant herds are nearly always made up of females and their young because males are pushed out to fend for themselves when they hit puberty and start playing too roughly with younger calves. While the females are cooperatively caring for the kids, the males battle each other for dominance and the rights to mate females from other herds. What else is new?

Major Problems

African and Asian Elephants are all that are left of their 600 now-extinct ancestors, including the Wooly Mammoth which actually lived right here in the Oakland Hills an Ice Age or two ago. Asian Elephants are highly threatened at this time and, if we don’t watch out, we could someday lose our African Elephants too.

These Elephants can live free without fear of culling in the Amboseli National Reserve in Kenya.

Ivory poachers continue to take more Elephants than any natural or accidental causes of death: Even the strongest Elephant is no match for automatic weapons, high-speed vehicles and new laws that allow much more killing.

On top of this, culling (killing) has become the solution of choice in areas where Elephants and people have different ideas about how the land is to be used.

Traditionally, Africans were nomadic people who lived harmoniously with their wild animals, but ranching and farming changed all that. Now you have a situation where 800 million people are trying to survive on land that is not that hospitable to start with. In fifty years that population will more than double and what will become of Elephants then?

This situation is similar to the near-extinction of millions of American Bison in the 1800s when barbed wire cut up their territories and gunpowder did the rest of the work. Human/animal conflicts occur everywhere, so no society can point fingers of blame. What we can do is help find alternatives before it’s too late. Projects like beehive fences are proving it doesn’t have to be an us/them proposition.

Major Efforts

Colleen, and our Zoo’s President & CEO, Dr. Joel Parrott, have led efforts here to raise over $100,000 since 1988 for the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya. Next time you are at the Zoo, you can use your Conservation Quarter to “vote” for this research project that is helping to protect the amazing wild Elephants of Africa.

On Saturday our class is getting an incredible treat: a visit to the Elephant barns to see our groundbreaking methods of getting Elephants to participate in their own care. More about this later.