Elephants on the Move: Preparation

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It is an exciting time to be a part of the San Diego Zoo! Whether you are an employee, a Zoo member, or a guest, everyone is talking about the future opening of Elephant Odyssey, the Zoo’s newest exhibit. With just under two months before the grand opening, much is being done to prepare and train the elephants for their relocation.

Many people ask, “Why can’t we simply walk the elephants to their new exhibit?”

A great question! It does seem like it would be a lot easier to move the elephants by walking them from Elephant Mesa to the new exhibit space in Elephant Odyssey; however, one can encounter several potential problems. Health and safety are our biggest concerns when moving animals. We want to make sure that the animal being moved is in the safest situation as well as those who are working around her and those animals in nearby exhibits. All animals, domesticated, in zoos, or wild, react differently to unexpected situations, which could lead to a life-threatening injury. The only way to guarantee the safest possible scenario with all people and animals involved is in a controlled environment. In this case, our best controlled environment is with the use of a crate. When the elephants are crated, they are restricted from causing significant injuries to themselves or others.

Currently, the three elephants at the Zoo (Tembo, Sumithi, and Devi) have nearly completed their crate training. When visiting the elephants at the Zoo, you cannot miss the giant metal crate on exhibit. For the past year, all three elephants have been working with their keepers to become comfortable with entering into this crate for transportation. The idea of training an animal to walk into a crate sounds like an easy task at first, but in all actuality, it can be quite a challenge. Most animals do not like the idea of entering into an unfamiliar object, especially one which comes to a dead end. The fear of being trapped can overwhelm even the most domestic of pets, let alone a 9,000-pound elephant. Keepers have been working diligently with the elephants by taking one step at a time to gain the animals’ trust, ensure their success, and more importantly, their safety.

Training began the moment the “girls” saw the crate for the first time on exhibit. With both doors open on opposite ends of the crate, a sense of curiosity was observed on behalf of the three soon-to-be travelers when they explored the outer framework with their trunks. As a result of the keepers placing food items on and around the crate, the elephants quickly lost any possible apprehension of walking through.

The crates we are using have an outer solid door and an inner set of slide bars on both ends. When training the girls to enter into the crate with a dead end, we only use the slide bars, which allow for the elephant to see out and to receive consistent positive food reinforcement. Keepers use food favorites from the girls’ normal daily diet while training, such as raisins, watermelon, and alfalfa hay. Tembo, our most food-motivated elephant, to no one’s surprise appeared to be the most eager to work in the crate. In fact, at times, keepers needed to slow her down because she would anticipate and perform the actions before being asked the behavior.

Training both learned and unlearned behaviors is a never-ending task among all keepers. As a result, crate training will continue with the elephants up until the day they are transported into their new home. On that day, the girls will each be placed in their own crate just as they have experienced for the past several months during training. Once secured in the crate, the slide bars will be placed on the opposite end of the crate, and both outer solid doors can be easily shut, completely enclosing the animal with minimal impact and maximum safety. Within moments after being in the crate, we expect the elephants to arrive and calmly be released into their new exhibit at Elephant Odyssey!

The grand opening is scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, but there is much more that will take place between now and then, including the initial introduction of the Asian elephants from the Wild Animal Park with our existing group at the Zoo. We are all anxiously awaiting this moment and look forward to sharing those experiences with you!

Mike Langridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.