Elephant Shaba: Introductions

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Mary, left, and Shaba

It has been over a month now since we began introductions with elephants Shaba and Mary at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey (see post Shaba’s Next Step). The progress has been steady and encouraging. Shaba and Mary first met each other through a fence. We observed their interactions to get a better idea of what to expect when they would be in the same yard together. These fence-line introductions lasted for almost a week, getting longer each day until the two could be in adjacent yards overnight.

Mary didn’t seem very interested in being aggressive with Shaba through the fence. In fact, if there was food anywhere in the yard, Mary didn’t seem interested in Shaba at all! But Shaba was interested in Mary and initiated most of the contact between them. At night, when they had adjacent yards, Mary chose to sleep on the opposite side of her yard, far from the shared fence and closer to Sumithi, Devi, and Tembo, while Shaba slept close to the shared fence. Mary seemed to be drawn to what was comfortable and familiar to her, and Shaba seemed to be reaching out to establish new companionship.

Encouraged by the positive interactions and lack of aggression we saw, we moved to the next step. We began with Shaba and Mary together in our largest yard with small amounts of food placed throughout. Mary was more concerned with the food than she was with Shaba. Shaba followed Mary around and initiated most of the contact. From time to time, Mary would have enough of her new shadow and put her very quickly in her place. To do that, Mary would chase Shaba and give her a fairly good push.

Any time we do introductions, we have keepers placed all around the yard taking notes, filming, observing, and ready to break up any fight that looks like it could get out of hand. What can we possibly do to stop two massive animals from fighting? It’s amazing what some loud noise can do to get their attention! After that, we call them to separate ends of the yard and give them their space. Happily, we never had to interfere with Shaba and Mary. Shaba has good instinct. When Mary pushed, she braced herself and waited it out. Running away only makes a more dominant elephant want to chase, so standing still makes the aggression get boring pretty fast. Eventually, their interactions turned into gentle touches and even some instances of eating side by side from the same feeder. Mary is not one to share her food, so that was a big deal!

Once we were certain that Shaba and Mary could get along well in the same yard, we brought Sumithi (Smitty, as we affectionately call her) into the adjacent yard for a concurrent fence-line introduction. Shaba and Mary were still together, but Shaba had the choice of interacting with Mary in the yard or visiting Smitty at the fence. She balanced her time fairly evenly between them. Shaba seems eager to make new friends. Smitty, on the other hand, was more eager to let Shaba know who was going to be the boss. She spent much more time at the fence than Mary had and initiated more contact in the form of pokes and jabs. Nothing serious, just something a human child might do to a sibling just to be annoying. Shaba would leave when she had her fill but never stayed away for very long.

On August 16, we began introductions with Mary, Smitty, and Shaba together in the yard. Again we had food spread out and had keepers stationed all around. These introductions have been a little less peaceful than the previous ones. Smitty does more chasing and pushing than Mary did. We’ve seen some interesting behavior from Mary. A few times, she made her way over to stand between Smitty and Shaba when Smitty was pushing, and other times she joined in. For the most part, though, Mary stays out of it, more involved in feeding herself than policing anything.

The pushing and shoving is perfectly normal. Elephants live in a hierarchy. Each one is dominant or submissive depending on which other elephants are around. We need to give them opportunities to establish their dominance and settle into a comfortable herd structure so that we can start leaving them together for longer periods of time and eventually have a complete, cohesive herd of female elephants. It just might take awhile for everyone to find their place.

We will continue introductions with Shaba, Smitty, and Mary for awhile before we go to the next step, which will be fence-line contact with Tembo and/or Devi. Their behavior and level of comfort will be the determining factors. Generally, we do introductions first thing in the morning, so feel free to stop by and observe with us! We’re happy to point out “who’s who” in the yard and tell you what has been happening. So far we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve seen in such a short time.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.