Our newest elephant, Mila, is rounding out her first three months with us here at the San Diego Zoo, and she is doing extremely well, exceeding all of our expectations. A few weeks ago she cleared her mandatory quarantine period after receiving a clean bill of health by our veterinarians. As discussed in her previous blog entry, we were awaiting the results from her tuberculosis tests. Mila’s results came back negative, and at her overall health exam, she was in good health.
We have been working very hard to make Mila’s transition to her new home as smooth as possible. One of the most important aspects is that we ask Mila to participate in all of her daily care. Although she has had the chance to meet each member of our elephant care team, we have designated a core group of four keepers to help adjust her to her new life and routine. We use operant conditioning as the focus of our training program, relying heavily on positive reinforcement to reward our elephants. Mila was already conditioned to an array of training before her arrival; however, it has been our goal to get her used to how we work with all of the other elephants at the San Diego Zoo.
We have been working with Mila on having all of her feet hosed and scrubbed with soap, along with presenting her feet for “pedicures.” Other behaviors we have focused on include having her open her mouth for optimal viewing of her teeth, presenting an ear for future blood draws and allowing us to touch every part of her body. This training not only allows us to take care of Mila every day, but it also helps build her trust and confidence with her keepers and her new routine. She continues to amaze us with her ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations.
As soon as we knew Mila was clear of quarantine, we immediately gave her the opportunity to explore outside of the special needs facility where she had spent all of her time so far at the Zoo. Every elephant who has moved to the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center has shown different reactions to moving throughout the facility. Mila, being the confident elephant that she is, had no problem walking through the large entryway and out into the main facility. She was accompanied by one of our keepers who has been working with her since her arrival to help make the exploration more comfortable for her. Mila had plenty of time to explore every inch of the stalls and scale area, becoming familiar with every new sight, smell, and sound.
Her normal care routine was soon transitioned from the special needs facility to the main stalls, which can be viewed by Zoo guests. Every day she was asked to participate in her daily foot care in one of the stalls, given a bath, and even asked to stand on the platform scale so we could record her weight. After a few days, we gave her access to one of the main exhibit yards. The yards are pre-set with plenty of tasty food items in puzzle feeders, along with several novel enrichment items to enhance her experience outside for the first time. Of course, we took every precaution to make sure Mila would be comfortable in the yard; however, she proved ready to explore with enthusiasm, and we couldn’t be happier with her progress into her new home.
Mila is now on exhibit at various times throughout the day for everyone to see and admire. She is not on a schedule, meaning every day is different for her. We try our best to give her as much time as possible out in one of the exhibit yards during the day to allow her to enjoy the sunshine and to get some exercise. She is also now staying in one of the exhibit yards overnight. During her first venture outside overnight, I and another keeper accompanied her to observe her behavior and make sure the experience went well. Her first night went without a hitch, and she continues to spend time in the exhibit overnight as we progress her through acclimating to life at the San Diego Zoo.
It is important to remember that prior to arriving here, Mila had spent the majority of her life without other elephants. It has been more than 30 years since she has interacted with another elephant, and giving her the ability to live in a social setting with other elephants was a key point in moving her here. Since her arrival, Mila has been able to communicate with the rest of the elephants as well as smell, hear, and even see them from a distance. Even though the rest of the female elephants have plenty of experience meeting new arrivals, we were unsure how Mila would react.
In late January, we gave Mila the first opportunity to meet another elephant with limited interaction. We decided that Mary was the best option, given she is a dominant elephant in the herd, is relatively calm, and has a good track record with meeting newcomers. The first interaction was done with each elephant in separate adjoining yards, using a mesh wall as the barrier between the two elephants. We were uncertain how Mila would react; being excited, nervous, scared, aggressive, or submissive were all possibilities we could have expected to observe. Mary was curious of the newbie, while Mila was surprised to find something as big as her on the other side of the wall! These initial meet-and-greets have the potential to go in many different directions; there is no textbook answer to say how new elephants will react to one another. We use observation and our knowledge of elephant behavior to gauge the success of the introductions.
On day two, we gave Mary and Mila the ability to have increased physical interactions using more exposed barriers between the two of them. Mila started off on the defensive, possibly unsure that Mary, too, is in fact an elephant. It was her initial reaction to let Mary know that Mila was just as big as Mary was. There was nudging and pushing at one another between the barrier, several trunk slaps, and even a temper tantrum or two on Mila’s end. Mila was even flaring her ears out to make herself look more impressive. For the most part, their encounters have been relatively calm and fascinating to watch as the two get to know each other more. It is our hope that Mary’s interactions will help shape Mila’s behavior when she meets other females within our herd. Mary is generally laid back but means business when she needs to.
Elephants are as individual in their personalities as humans are, so each new meeting will come with different behaviors. Only time will tell when we are ready for Mary and Mila to share the same space, but we are confident that their relationship will continue to grow stronger as they spend more time together. In the meantime, look for Mila the next time you visit the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey—she just may be out on exhibit. The other elephants appreciate your visit to the Zoo as well.
Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.