Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
While visiting the ECC (Elephant Care Center) at the San Diego Zoo, we had the remarkable opportunity to meet Lead Elephant Keepers Ron Ringer and Steve Hebert. During our visit we got to see a first hand account of what it’s like to be an elephant keeper at the Zoo. Mr. Ringer originally wanted to work with the National Parks but decided on a zoo career after volunteering at a local zoo during college. When asked if he wanted to work with elephants he replied, “I’ll give it a shot.
Taking care of the elephants at the Zoo is a big task. In the course of a day a keeper has to clean the exhibit, put out food, provide enrichment, give special medical attention depending on the individual, and much more. “If you want to be a keeper you [have to] love shovels and rakes,” says Mr. Ringer. Even though keepers have lots of interactions with guests at the training and pedicure area, they also have to keep the exhibits clean for the animals. Along with maintenance and guest education, keepers are responsible for administering medication to different animals that need it. Smitty is one such animal. Smitty is an older elephant at the Zoo that has arthritis. In order to make Smitty as happy and as comfortable as possible, keepers administer powdered ibuprofen twice daily as part of her routine. How might you get an elephant to take its medicine? The answer is simple: you convince the elephant that it’s a treat. Not only is Smitty’s medicine apple-flavored, but it can also be put into treats that the elephants enjoy, such as hollowed out cantaloupes or peanut butter. Keepers have to think creatively in order to find the best methods to deliver care in a way the animals enjoy and can benefit from.
One of the hardest personal challenges Mr. Ringer has experienced as a keeper was switching to protected contact with the elephants. Protected contact was put in place as a safety method for keepers. Protected contact means that the animal and the keeper are never in the same area without some form of physical barrier. If an elephant has procedures done, ranging from health management of their feet to drawing blood or administering medicine, it is all done with limited contact. For Mr. Ringer it took three years to adjust to the this new method of handling elephants. Before protected contact, keepers’ interactions with the elephants in their enclosures allowed them to become a matriarch-like figure to the elephants. Adapting to protected contact meant Mr. Ringer had to get used to the new way the elephants would respond to instruction. They would do some behaviors when requested and others they would omit or avoid. In the words of Mr. Ringer, it was like telling a child to eat their vegetables before eating their dessert- but from a block away. In the beginning they would not always do what was asked. However, the benefits of protected contact greatly outweigh these challenges.
In addition to training, communication is key for keepers. Whether engaging guests in conversations, letting other keepers know where they are working, or keeping logs on the animals, zookeepers communicate in a variety of ways each day. In the Elephant Care Center, there is a white board where the elephant keepers write down their location so other keepers know where they are working and keep the appropriate doors closed. There is also a board with elephant foot hygiene information so keepers know when an elephant needs its next foot treatment. Boards are not the only way keepers can communicate with one another; keepers also use daily diaries, known as red books, to share important information. The current communication challenge is the creation of a universal training language for elephant keepers nationwide. If a keeper would like an elephant to lift its foot to do a medical evaluation, a keeper in one zoo may ask for the elephant to “lift,” whereas another keeper at a different zoo may say to an elephant “up.” If we are able to create a universal training language for elephant keepers throughout the nation, it would make it a lot easier for elephants and keepers that get transferred between zoos to understand each other.
Being a keeper is a full time job, especially with six elephants. The animals under Mr. Ringer’s care become like family. In the words of Mr. Ringer, “I got here when [Devi] was 11 years old, I got to see her go through her teens and early adulthood. She’s 36 now.” In some instances, when keepers get to watch the animals grow and thrive under their care, they grow close with the animals. A keeper helps their animals in everyway they can, whether it be taking a blood sample to make sure the animal is healthy, or educating the public on their importance. Mr. Ringer hopes every visitor to the Zoo will understand just how amazing elephants are.
Marcel, Careers Team
Week five, Winter Session 2013