Posts Tagged ‘Celebrating Elephants’

Moments of the Day: Celebrating elephants everyday!

by | May 14th, 2014


Lisa dusting. One of my favorite behaviors to observe. Photo by author.

Lisa dusting. One of my favorite behaviors to observe. Photo by author.

If you had asked me ten years ago where I saw myself today, I probably would have told you sledding with huskies in Alaska or tracking down wolves in Yellowstone . . . after all wolves were my first love and that would have been my dream job at the time. Although they still have a place in my heart, African Elephants trumped those mysterious and elusive carnivores long ago. After my first day as an intern here at Oakland Zoo, I knew I was where I belonged and that was nine years ago.

There are so many things that make my job special . . . the first obviously is that I am privileged to work with these majestic

African elephants love to mud! Oshy doing a great job! Photo by author.

African elephants love to mud! Oshy doing a great job! Photo by author.

and profound giants.  At the end of the day I’m exhausted . . . the job isn’t glamour and all fun like everyone may think it is. The majority of our day is spent cleaning up poop, moving bales of hay, loading tree branches, and feeding. It’s a dirty job but I wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m now more of a tomboy then I’ve ever been (coming from the girl that grew up with Barbie). There’s something special that happens on a daily basis that I like to call “the moment of the day”. The elephants teach me something new all the time, a constant reminder of why they are so extraordinary and why I am here to stay.


My favorite “moments of the day” with Donna, Lisa, Osh, and M’Dunda:

  • Did you know that elephants yawn? I don’t see this very often, but sometimes at night and early morning, I get to see a stretched trunk and yawn, one of
    M'Dunda yawns and stretches, the only time I've captured this on film! Photo by author.

    M’Dunda yawns and stretches, the only time I’ve captured this on film! Photo by author.

    my very favorite behaviors.

  • In moments of protectiveness or just sweetness, Donna will drape her trunk over Lisa’s head or body.
  • Elephants use “tools” to help themselves. M’Dunda and Donna will pick up sticks to scratch their ears. Osh will stand on a log to reach a pumpkin hanging up high in a hay net.
  • As part of their greeting ceremony, the females will rumble, throw their ears out, heighten their heads, then urinate and defecate simultaneously.
  • Donna enjoys her time “sunning”. Just today I saw her drift off into a cat nap soaking up the sun.
  • M’Dunda snores!
  • Lisa and Donna love to sleep together, and sometimes with their behinds touching.
  • Sometimes they all get something stuck up their trunks and will contort the base of their trunk in a funny way, just like when we scrunch our faces.
  • Lisa will flip upside down in the pool and scoot her body around with all four feet in the air!
  • Last week, Osh dropped a caterpillar out of his trunk!
  • They all like to scratch their sides and bellies on the rocks.
  • Donna especially enjoys tactile touch and walks through her hanging enrichment every day.

The list could go on and on.

Donna loves touch and enjoys draping her "firehose octopus" over her body. Photo by author.

Donna loves touch and enjoys draping her “firehose octopus” over her body. Photo by author.

Second most importantly, Oakland Zoo allows me to be directly involved in conservation. Through WCS’s 96 elephants campaign ( we are getting youth involved, signing petitions, and increasing awareness of the ivory trade. This is a brand new campaign that started in late 2013, symbolic for the 96 elephants a day that are being poached in Africa for their tusks (see my blog for more information, We also recently began supporting a local grassroots organization, March for Elephants, that we marched with through San Francisco last year to raise awareness of the ivory trade. This passionate army of volunteers dedicate endless hours of their time and are dedicated to promoting global awareness about the elephant crisis, advocating for cessation of poaching in all regions where elephants live, and fiercely working to shut down the ivory trade. Please visit their website ( for more info and join us in the upcoming march on October 4th!

Girls just want to have fun. Donna throwing her tire around at night. Photo by author.

Girls just want to have fun. Donna throwing her tire around at night. Photo by author.

For the last eighteen years we have been the proud supporters of Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya.  Through our Celebrating Elephants Events (check out, we have been raising advocacy awareness (for both captivity and the ivory trade), through the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of visitors. To date we have raised over 250,000 dollars which goes directly to Amboseli to protect the elephants that live in Amboseli National Park through their forty year research project. Celebrating Elephants is a lot of work and it takes a great team to pull it off, but in the end it’s more than worth it knowing that we are working to protect what elephants remain in the wild. Knowing that we had a hand in making even the smallest change for one elephant or 450,000 is conservation at its finest. So please come join us on May 17th  (evening event) with special guest speaker Vicki Fishlock, Resident Scientist at Amboseli Trust, and May 24th (day event) . . . learn a lot about elephants and the way we manage them here at the zoo, see an animal-free circus, get your face painted, and eat cotton candy . . . all in the name of elephants!

It’s “Celebrating Elephants” time at Oakland Zoo!

by | April 30th, 2014

zena-the-zookeeperDid you know that Oakland Zoo is the only zoo in Northern California with African Elephants?  We have FOUR amazing African Elephants, three females and one male, and if you know the Oakland Zoo, you know that elephant conservation is VERY important to us! Elephants in the wild are in trouble, and they have been for a very long time. Why? Because they are hunted for their beautiful ivory tusks. Trinkets, jewelry and other stuff is carved from their ivory. Hunting elephants is against the law, but sadly it still happens.

All elephants are individuals and have very unique personalities. This is M'Dundamella, 45 years old with long beautiful tusks.

All elephants are individuals and have very unique personalities. This is M’Dundamella, 45 years old with long beautiful tusks.

Not too long ago, we at the Zoo decided to get even more involved in saving wild elephants than we already are by joining a campaign called “96 Elephants”. 96 is how many elephants are killed in the wild every day for their ivory. But there is good news! There are new laws here in the United States to stop the importing of ivory! Lots if Zoos are banding together to help stop the ivory trade altogether, and you can help too!

Every year, we at the Zoo have a very special event called “Celebrating Elephants”. On May 17th, we have a fun-filled day where you can enjoy and learn about elephants, while helping to save elephants in the wild. The Zoo is home to four African elephants named Donna, Lisa, M’Dunda and Osh, you can read more about them below. On the 17th, you can see them up close by buying a ticket for a special private elephant barn tour! We will also be selling raffle tickets for great prizes and all the money raised will go to helping elephants in the wild through our conservation partner, the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Africa.

Osh, our only boy, is 20 and has been with us since 2004. He came from Howletts Wild Animal Park, where he was born with his family group. Young males in the wild get kicked out of their herd from ages 8-12, and that is what Osh’s mom and aunts started to do to him, so we gave him a home here at Oakland Zoo. Osh is extremely active, exploratory, and curious. He’s got a very lively and chipper walk, and he loves to play, browse and graze.

Donna is 35 years old and came to Oakland Zoo in 1989. She very quickly became the dominant female because she had the biggest attitude. She is the most playful out of the girls.  At nighttime you will find her having fun playing with the large tractor tires in her enclosure and charging into the pool for a cool-down! Personality-wise Donna is impatient, loves to participate in training, and is closely bonded with Lisa, whom she sleeps with every night. See how and why we train our elephants here!

Lisa is 37 years old and has been with us since she was two years old. She came from Kruger National Park in South Africa and went briefly to a “training” facility for several months then came to the zoo. Lisa is an ‘elephant’s elephant,’ she likes all of her pachyderm friends, and wants to make everyone happy. She loves her pool. We call her our water baby, because she will take daily dips if the weather is right! Want to see Lisa taking a bath? She is sneaky, agile, and can be very stubborn!

M’Dunda is 45 years old and came to us in 1991. She has a bad history of abuse at her previous facility; which is amazing because she is an extremely gentle soul and wouldn’t hurt a fly. She loves to play with Osh, and is often spotted at night leaning over the fence into Osh’s area, trunk-twirling with him. She can be a little insecure, and scared of new situations. When she first came here she wouldn’t eat her treat boxes! She sure does now, though! She also has long beautiful tusks.

So come to “Celebrating Elephants” on May 17th and see our elephants up close, learn about elephants in the wild, and just have a great  ol’ time!


In The Majesty of Elephants

by | May 10th, 2013

elephants-grubbing_web DSC00175 [800x600]

Gina Kinzley is the lead elephant keeper at Oakland Zoo. We wanted to learn more about the elephants and her role with them, so we asked her some questions. Here is our interview:





Q: Oakland Zoo is having two Celebrating Elephants events in May (May 17 and 25). Why are elephants worth celebrating?

A: Elephants hold a special place in our hearts due to their majestic being, their family values, and their intelligence and emotions that they so clearly communicate.

Q: How many elephants are at Oakland Zoo?

A: We have been four African elephants, three females and one male.

Q: Where did our current elephants come from?

A:    Our three females come from different countries in Africa. They were part of a culling – or killing – of all of their family members. The three were saved as orphans and sold for profit. This was a very common practice decades ago, but is not one we currently support or endorse. Osh, our bull, was born in captivity at another facility in England. He outgrew his herd members; we were looking for a male, so we gave him a new forever home here at Oakland Zoo.

Q: How do you transport an elephant from England to Oakland Zoo?

A: We had to ship Osh overseas: he was first transported by a crane, than in a giant steel crate by a ferry, cargo plane, and then a truck from Los Angeles.

Q:  Do elephants express happiness? Are elephants “happy” at Oakland Zoo?

A:   Although we try not to anthropomorphize, or convey human emotion on our animals, we believe our elephants are leading healthy and happy lives. We provide them with lots of browse (leaves and branches) and enrichment, and a spacious facility for them to investigate and exercise. Sometimes they do make certain noises we believe are signs of contentment: they vibrate their tongue between their lips, and it sounds like a cat purring. We call it a raspberry.

Q: Oakland Zoo is well-known for how we treat our elephants. What do we do differently from other zoological institutions, and why did we decide to go that route?

A:   Since 1992, we have been managing our elephants in what we call a “protected contact training style,” which uses positive reinforcement to get the elephant to do what we ask. This means that we work with our elephants in a protected style, using barriers when training or doing foot care. More importantly, when the elephants choose to work with us, we use positive reinforcement such as praise and treats for doing what we ask. We do not have a dominant relationship over the elephant, use an ankus (a spiked rod), or use punishment and negative reinforcement, such as the case in some free-contact zoos and all circuses. We are very outspoken against the abuse and negligence of circuses toward elephants and other animals. This method of training is catching on in other zoos, as they are realizing how important this management style is, especially since keeper injuries and deaths from elephants continue to happen.

Q: Should elephants be kept in zoos?

A:   If there wasn’t ivory poaching or loss of habitat due to human encroachment, then elephants shouldn’t have to be in zoos. However, because their populations are threatened and endangered, we need to help their species survive. Having elephants in captivity is a huge responsibility, and all facilities that hold them need to provide them with everything they need: social companionship, space, browse, grass, just to name a few.

Q:  If I was concerned about elephants (or other animals) being abused in circuses or other situations, what can I do about it? What is my first step?

A:   If you have concerns about elephants being abused in circuses or zoos, you can write them a letter and express your thoughts. You can also blog, tweet, and facebook about it and make your voice heard! There are several animal activist groups you can reach out to as well. Juliette Speaks (, founded by Juliette West, is a great starting point. Juliette is a young woman trying to educate others about the peril elephants face in the wild, and their exploitation in captivity.

Q:     Do you think elephants could be taught tricks without using abusive or painful methods?

A:   Yes, absolutely. There are many good training programs out there that use positive reinforcement and can train really cool behaviors such as waving a trunk or shaking its head and flapping it’s ears. 

Behaviors such as hind-leg stands like you would see in the circus and some zoos, where an elephant sits on it’s back legs, or rest on its head with its rear legs kicked up, are completely unnecessary and unnatural behaviors for an elephant to learn, and in the long run can cause arthritis or other problems.

Q: What is Oakland Zoo doing about elephants in the circuses, and about elephants in the wild?

A:   Oakland Zoo hosts an annual Celebrating Elephants Day (May 25) where kids can learn about how we can humanely care for elephants. We also teach kids and families about the cruelty to animals found in many circuses and how we can change this behavior. Along with the daytime event, we host an evening silent auction and lecture with a guest speaker (this year’s speaker is Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Animals Welfare Society, PAWS). All of the proceeds go to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, led by renowned researcher Cynthia Moss ( Over the years, Oakland Zoo has donated over $200,000 to Amboseli Elephant Trust, helping the foundation conduct important ongoing research as well as protecting the elephants from the ivory trade.

Q: How can people get more involved?

A:   If you’d like to get involved you can help by coming to the event, help make treat boxes for the elephants and do your own behavioral observations, learn about what it takes to take care of an elephant, and then spread the word to your friends. You can find out more at

Q:  How do I become an elephant keeper?

A:   Becoming an elephant keeper takes hard work, dedication, and true knowledge of the species management and natural history. You can volunteer to help with Oakland Zoo’s animals too, including the elephants. See for volunteer opportunities. 

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 ( ). 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!