Welcome, Elephant Mila

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Happy New Year, everyone! It has been some time since you have heard from us at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, and it is for good reason. As always, we have been very busy caring for our herd of elephants; we hope many of you have had the opportunity to stop by recently and witness that care first hand. Our elephant team at the Zoo specializes in the care of aging elephants, and since the opening of our exhibit in 2009, we have had the privilege of extending that care to 11 individuals. Most recently, Elephant Odyssey has been home to six African and Asian elephants, with the opportunity to open our doors and provide sanctuary for other older elephants. We are very proud to say that on November 14, 2013, our herd grew a little bigger (by about 8,000 pounds or over 3,600 kilograms!) as we welcomed Mila, a 41-year-old female African elephant, into the family.

Mila’s story happens to be quite interesting. She traveled all the way from New Zealand, where she lived for more than 30 years. For the last four years, Mila lived at the Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary just south of Auckland, where a team of dedicated keepers and supporters worked hard to find her a new home. Unfortunately, it was never an option to keep Mila in New Zealand as there happens to be only one other elephant in the entire country, and the two of them had never met. It was the goal of the Franklin Zoo Charitable Trust to send her to a home that could provide Mila the opportunity to be social with other elephants. The San Diego Zoo happened to be the best option for Mila to live out the rest of her life. After a year of planning and preparations, Mila traveled inside a custom-made 15,000-pound (6,800 kilograms) steel crate by cargo plane more than 6,500 miles (10,400 kilometers) from Auckland to Los Angeles. She was then transported in a flatbed semi-truck with a police escort to the San Diego Zoo, where she unloaded into our Care Center with ease. More than 20 people, including Franklin Zoo and San Diego Zoo staff, accompanied Mila on her monumental journey half-way across the world.

For now, Mila is in the middle of her mandatory quarantine period, a six- to nine-week stay inside the Special Needs Facility of the Conrad Preby’s Elephant Care Center. Quarantine is a routine procedure where all new animal residents to the Zoo and Safari Park are cared for separately from the rest of the animal collection to make sure there is no present sickness, disease, or vector they can transmit to the existing animal population. Mila’s quarantine period is especially important because she must also be tested for tuberculosis, an infectious respiratory disease that can infect both humans and elephants.

Testing elephants for this disease is mandatory every year as regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the process is noninvasive. We simply train the elephants for what we call a trunk wash. The training is done through simple desensitization, having the elephants accept a saline solution poured into the nostrils of the trunk. The elephant is cued to raise its trunk up in the air for a minimum of 15 seconds before dropping it lower to blow the saline into a sterilized bag. Because this disease generally affects the lungs, and elephants breathe mostly through their trunk, the trunk wash ensures that if any bacteria is present, it should wash out with the saline. Mila was tested in New Zealand prior to her departure and was again tested three times over a three-day period immediately after she arrived. It usually takes a minimum of six weeks for the results to return to the Zoo, as the samples must be allowed to grow inside a sterile lab environment.

While we wait for the results, I am happy to report that Mila’s transition to her new home with us has gone incredibly well, and she has exceeded all of our expectations. Since Day One, Elephant Team members Ann, Scott, and I have been taking care of Mila. We have been working on creating an important trust-based relationships with her so we can prepare Mila for her shift into the rest of the Elephant Care Center and exhibit before she meets the other female elephants. Mila has proven to be very smart and adaptable, which only reinforces our decision to bring her here to the San Diego Zoo and give her the chance to meet other elephants. After living the last 35 years of her life without the company of other elephants, only time will tell how easy it will be for her to integrate into our existing herd.

For the remainder of her quarantine period, we will continue to acclimate her to our daily care routine, training, and staff. Mila will remain off public view for a few more weeks, but we are hopeful that you will give her a warm welcome when she makes her public debut in the future. In the meantime, make sure you stop by to see the other six elephants we have at the Zoo. They are always happy to see you!

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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