With the passing of elephant Connie at the San Diego Zoo, we know that many of our guests are concerned about her companion, Shaba (see post Elephant ICU Loses a Member). I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the things we’ve observed from her that give us hope that she will adjust to life without her long-time companion and thrive in her new herd.
After their quarantine period ended, Connie and Shaba were given opportunities to explore some of the yards and come out into the Elephant Care Center stalls for their daily treatments. Shaba took to these new areas with eagerness. She has been curious about each new place, exploring every area that could possibly have a treat hiding in it (and usually there is something good to find). She has also been very outgoing when it comes to meeting new elephants. She is the first to want to approach the fence and interact with them. She is gentle when she reaches through to smell and touch the others, and not frightened or put off when they are a little less gentle with her. From the beginning, we have seen signs that she will integrate beautifully into our herd.
Yesterday, the keepers and veterinary staff had the difficult but necessary task of relieving Connie of her pain and discomfort by euthanasia. It was emotional for everyone involved. Foremost in our minds was the uncertainty of how Shaba would react when we would bring her in to say goodbye. We know from various studies that elephants have some understanding of death, so when an elephant passes in our care, we give their herd mates a chance to see and touch the body. After we knew that Connie was gone, we cleared the area and stood silently as Shaba was lead into the special-needs facility. At first she was focused on all of the people, but after a moment she saw her friend. It was a solemn and precious experience to be in that room. Shaba approached Connie with some hesitation. She reached out and touched her trunk. She backed away for a moment and vocalized, but kept her eyes on Connie, came back, and touched her again. There was a keeper nearby with treats and an open door to the yard so Shaba could decide how long to stay and when to go. She walked over to her keeper for a treat and then back to Connie a couple of times before deciding to leave the area. In total the interaction lasted only a short time, but we believe it was a significant step in helping her to deal with her loss.
For the rest of the day Shaba was outside being introduced to Mary, our dominant female Asian elephant. They had a very good interaction. They touched and smelled each other through the fence on and off throughout the afternoon. Mary asserted her dominance from time to time, and Shaba behaved exactly the way a more submissive elephant should. We are confident that when the time comes to put them together in a yard, the process will go smoothly. Shaba spent the night in our biggest yard for the first time last night. It was also her first night without Connie, so we had a keeper here to observe her. She did very well. She spent a good amount of time near Mary at the fence and the rest of the time either sleeping or exploring. She has a very secure and independent personality.
We will continue to watch Shaba closely to make sure that she is coping with this difficult change as well as possible. We are grateful that Shaba had Connie with her to help her with the adjustment to her new home and that we had the wonderful opportunity to know Connie and to work with her. She will be missed not only by Shaba but by all of the staff and our guests who love and care for each of the animals here at Elephant Odyssey.
Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Connie and Shaba Out and About.