Big Animals Make Big Poops

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Zoo Intern Quest 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 jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

kalee_week5_picEvery week, Mary and her friends get pedicures at the San Diego Zoo. Mary is the elephant matriarch of the elephant herd at the Zoo. All of the elephants receive world-class animal care at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey exhibit. These large, lucky mammals have twelve people dedicated to the job of picking up after them.  Elephant keepers are responsible for picking up about one ton of poop per day, that’s about three hundred pounds of poop per elephant. As Lead Elephant Keeper, Ron Ringer plays a big role in the daily care of the elephants. Although he is the Lead Keeper, Mr. Ringer still picks up his fair share of the over 1,000 pounds of poop produced every day.

Scooping elephant poop is a gargantuan job, but Mr. Ringer has many other tasks to attend to throughout the day as well. Mr. Ringer administers some pretty serious foot care, which includes special recipes for each elephant. These foot care remedies range from apple cider vinegar to Epsom salt. It is very important that elephants have excellent foot hygiene because foot infections are one of the top causes of elephant sickness and fatality. As the Lead Keeper, Mr. Ringer also monitors and administers the medicine that the elephants receive.

Mr. Ringer also deals with the nutritional needs of the elephants. This mostly involves transporting one hundred and twenty five pounds of hay, per elephant, per day. However, the elephants are not spoon-fed. I mean, there aren’t any spoons in the wild right? The keepers make sure to provide the elephants with more challenging and natural ways to obtain their food, such as placing the hay in a barrel or hanging it from one of the tree-like apparatuses, otherwise known as “utili-trees,” in the exhibit. Where does all this hay go? Why, it turns into poop, of course, and so the cycle of feeding and pooping continues.

Before Mr. Ringer was a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo, he was a keeper at a much smaller zoo in Kansas where he worked with nearly all of the zoo’s animals. Before that, he was basically a “jack of all trades,” he has worked for a soft drink company, shipping company, the city of Manhattan, and at one time, even held the position of a tree clipper. Once Mr. Ringer transitioned from the Kansas to the San Diego Zoo, he received highly- specialized, on-the-job-training to work with elephants. Even though he is very experienced and knowledgeable, Mr. Ringer told us that he learns new things every day and that the intelligence of the elephants never ceases to amaze him.

Mr. Ringer works with the elephants using a positive reinforcement technique (by which I mean behaviors rewarded with food, of course). These behaviors include stepping onto a scale, displaying their ears, sides, and feet, and coming when called. All of these behaviors are taught for the benefit of the elephant because it makes it easier to administer medicine, perform check ups, and keep tabs on the general health of the animal. These behaviors are also beneficial for the keepers and crucial to maintaining the health of these magnificent megavertabrates. They are also an excellent way to bring mental and physical stimulation, or enrichment, to the elephants’ day.

By this point, some you might be wondering, “Wow that sounds like a cool job, but do I have what it takes to be an elephant keeper?” The answer is yes, if you have the right mindset. Mr. Ringer said that to work with any large animal, you must have confidence.

If you want to be an elephant keeper, or any kind of keeper for that matter, Mr. Ringer says that it is very important to gain a lot of experience with animals. The Humane Society, animal rescues, shelters, sanctuaries, and zoos have great volunteer opportunities. Mr. Ringer told us many fascinating and exciting stories about his life as an elephant keeper, but I will save those for another time. Besides, if you have a passion for animals, I might be hearing your stories someday soon.

Kalee, Careers Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014