It has been almost a year since Shaba made her trip from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona (see post Elephant Moves) to her new home in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Shaba is a 33-year-old African female who had lived at Reid Park her entire life with her best friend, Connie, an Asian elephant, who passed away from cancer about 5 months after their arrival here (see post Elephant ICU Loses a Member). Since then, we have been working hard to get Shaba acclimated to Elephant Odyssey and to the other four females who live here. They are Mary, a 49-year-old Asian elephant who is the herd’s matriarch, Sumithi, a 46-year-old Asian elephant, Tembo, a 42-year-old African elephant, and Devi, a 36-year-old Asian elephant.
Shaba is a very sweet elephant and works well with her keepers, but she had never been around any other elephants except Connie. We knew it was important for her to get to know everyone quickly, because she needed the socialization that all female elephants require. Our plan was to start her out with an introduction to Mary and then slowly introduce her to Sumithi, Devi, and lastly, Tembo. The initial introduction to Mary went very well—Mary told her who was boss and Shaba accepted that right away! Then it was just a matter of the two getting to know each other. Mary was really good about defining Shaba’s place in Mary’s yard—“all the food is mine, and I will let you have some of it.”
As time went by, the two started spending nights together, and we could see that Shaba was very happy to be around Mary; in turn, Mary was very tolerant of the newbie. After several weeks, we included Sumithi into the group. It also went well as long as Shaba did not get too close to Sumithi’s food. Sumithi would remind Shaba of this by chasing her around the yard. This was pretty funny, because Shaba could really run, and at best, Sumithi could work up a slow saunter. Sumithi got her point across, though, and the three became a workable group pretty quickly. They, too, started spending nights together and all went well.
Then it was Devi’s turn. It was going to be interesting, because Devi had, in the past, gone after the new elephants with a reckless abandon. This never worked out for her, but she tried. When she was put into the group of Mary, Sumithi, and Shaba, Devi was immediately on the defensive. She ran right away from Shaba, who wasn’t sure how to react. No elephant had ever run from her before! Shaba slowly worked her way over to Devi and touched her, and Devi submitted right away. Shaba then spent the next several weeks getting to know Devi, standing next to her, eating from the same spot, and if one of the other elephants started to chase Shaba, she would seek Devi out and use her as a comfort zone.
This went on for several weeks, and then it was time to introduce Tembo. This was a big deal because Tembo likes to charge now, ask questions later. We were prepared for any problems; it was all hands on deck for the elephant staff. We let Tembo into the yard with the other four girls, and she immediately went to the food and started to eat. She basically paid no attention to Shaba, although Shaba was keeping a close eye on her. It went very well for a while, and then Shaba approached Tembo, and Tembo chased her all over the yard. Luckily, Shaba is a lot faster than Tembo and ran away from her. Tembo ran out of steam pretty quickly, and all settled down. These days, the new group is still establishing itself, but Shaba has learned to move out of the way when Tembo comes near. You can see all of our female elephants together in the morning and afternoon. We still have not kept them all together overnight, but that is the next goal of ours.
Shaba has settled in very well. She looks to Mary now as her protector and companion. She gets along pretty well with all the other elephants, but when one decides to get a little pushy, which happens in elephant herds, she immediately runs to Mary. At night, we keep Mary and Shaba together, and we have even witnessed both of them lying side by side at night to sleep. This is GOOD! We will continue to monitor the females as we head into the future, and the future looks really bright for our female herd at Elephant Odyssey.
Ron Ringer is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Elephant Ranchipur: Healing Nicely.