Welcome, Elephants Connie and Shaba!

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Shaba, left, and Connie get comfortable in San Diego.

Connie and Shaba came to us from the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, just about a month ago (see post Elephant Moves). Their new lives in San Diego started with one very long and exciting day: they were loaded into crates first thing in the morning, lifted onto a flatbed truck, and given a police escort all the way to the San Diego Zoo! On arrival, they were welcomed into our special-needs facility at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, where they will stay for the duration of their mandatory quarantine period.

The special-needs facility has everything we need to get these two amazing animals acclimated to living here and being a part of our herd. If you’ve never taken a tour of our facility, you may not know what we have inside the building at the Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center. There is a large stall with cushioned flooring big enough for double occupancy. This is where we do our training sessions. There are mesh training walls, hanging toys and feeders, and a chute for more up-close health inspections. The special-needs facility also has its own yard, separate from the other elephant yards, where Connie and Shaba can get sun, dirt, mud, fresh air, and some downtime when they aren’t working with keepers. We are excited for the day we can let them into our bigger yards and watch them explore, but in the meantime, we are keeping them pretty busy!

Connie, 45, and Shaba, 32, spent their first day here relaxing, eating, and checking out their new space. We wanted to give them some time to get used to the idea that some big changes had happened. We were fortunate that Bruce and Gale, keepers who have worked with Connie and Shaba for decades, made the journey with them and stayed to help with the transition.

On day two, we started some very basic training sessions. Connie and Shaba were trained in a similar manner at Reid Park. However, some of the words we use are a little different, so basically they are being taught a new dialect. We teach them the new vocabulary the same way we train any behavior with any of our animals, using positive reinforcement. It’s kind of like a game of hot and cold with encouraging words and targets to help them understand what we are asking them to do, and a whistle and reward (usually a treat) when they get it right. With repetition and consistency, it doesn’t take long for an elephant to figure out exactly what we want; they are incredibly intelligent.

One very important part of training is developing a trusting relationship between keeper and elephant. We are working on this by slowly introducing Connie and Shaba to our staff. While in quarantine, they will have four consistent keepers: Ann, Scott, Jane, and me. When quarantine is over, each of the other keepers will be introduced to Connie and Shaba over a period of time. Connie, especially, needs time to get used to new people. We’ll use her behavior as a guide for how quickly or slowly we make changes to her environment. For now, we do training sessions throughout the day and focus on keeping both of them stimulated, healthy, and comfortable in their new situation.

Shaba was quick to catch on to our foot scrub routine. She presents all four feet through the foot hole of our training wall and allows us to scrub her feet, file her nails, and trim the pads of her feet. For the first couple of days Shaba was hesitant to be separated from Connie during individual training sessions or health checkups and reacted every time we opened or closed a door. Now she seems eager to come in for her individual training sessions and stands calmly, stationed with a keeper, as doors open and close around her. Shaba has learned to trust us, and her new environment, a great deal. Our goal is to get her even more comfortable with being touched so we can do a full physical exam, including letting our vets getting a little “up close and personal.” That will take some time, but she is showing so much potential.

Connie takes a little more time to warm up to new keepers. She has a history of being very choosy about whom she will cooperate with, but once she does, she has bonded closely. Thus, we are going at her pace. She may not have presented her foot the first day like Shaba did, but she is willing to do a little more every day, and we love that. Connie is very comfortable in the chute. She’s allowing the door to be closed and has been offering all four feet for scrubs. She has also started presenting a foot through the training wall for some toenail filing. We’re keeping her sessions short and sweet, and she’s rewarding us with some good work. Training is all about give and take.

When they’re not in a training session, Connie and Shaba get access to both their stall and yard. They have hanging feeders, pellet toys, and a huge dirt pile for digging and dusting. They both enjoy their toys. Shaba will balance a pellet ball on her tusks and gently shake it with her trunk to get the treats out. Connie will demolish any cardboard toy and devour the treats inside almost before you can blink!

Both of our newest elephants have been so much fun to get to know. We are looking forward to the day all of our guests can meet them and enjoy them as well. Until then, keep checking the blog! We’ll do our best to keep you up to date.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.