Big Personalities

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

sabrina_wwk5_picHave you ever looked at your dog and wondered, “How smart is he, anyway?” I know I have. Over the course of InternQuest, that question has kept popping up. How smart are bonobos? Turtles? Even ants? This week I met a beautiful elephant named Mary, and she showed me that intelligence is not all that matters. There’s personality and relationships—like the ones Lead Keeper Ronald Ringer and Senior Keeper Steve Herbert, have with their animals at Elephant Odyssey.

An elephant keeper’s job is unique, even by San Diego Zoo standards. If you’re an elephant keeper, you usually take care of elephants and nothing else, because elephants need a lot of care, from pedicures (taking care of their feet) to enrichment (stimulating natural behaviors). Of course, since the Zoo has a herd of seven (one male and six females) with good social dynamics, keeping the elephants busy isn’t that difficult. For instance, the rest of the herd usually respects Mary, who is the matriarch (leader) of all the other elephants. But another elephant, Devi, likes to tease Mary, so Mary chases her all around their exhibit. Sounds like how my brothers and I used to run around when we were kids!

According to the keepers, elephants are pretty similar to kids. They’re about as smart as a four or five year old child. By our measure of intelligence, that’s pretty smart for an animal! There are other comparisons as well. Like kids, elephants are always hungry. One time, a keeper placed some hay in what they thought was a secure, out-of-reach area and went to do something else in the exhibit. While the keeper was distracted, Mary snuck over to steal some hay. She couldn’t quite reach, so she quickly formed a plan. There happened to be a rock sitting just behind the hay. Her trunk was powerful enough to blow air to the rock, which then pushed hay within her reach for her to snack on.

In spite of the chasing and food stealing, Mary the matriarch struck me as a pretty mellow and confident individual. Recently, she was introduced to a new elephant named Mila, who was brought in from a zoo in New Zealand. Mila had not seen another elephant for a very long time, so she was shy and a little nervous. She needed to be introduced to the other elephants slowly. The keepers brought in some poop from each of the individual elephants so Mila get used to each of their scents. The next step was to let Mila see the other elephants through a fence. Mila and Mary were then able to meet each other trunk-to-trunk through the fence and then finally, Mary and Mila were able to interact face to face. Elephant introductions need to be slow and keepers must observe and pick up on any positive or negative cues from the elephants. Eventually, Mila will be introduced to the herd and will learn her role within the social group.

Elephants are one of the world’s coolest animals (in my humble opinion), but are they important to conservation as a whole? Well, elephants are “flagship animals”—the kind people come to the Zoo to see, similar to rhinos or giraffes. Every kid knows what an elephant is, and everybody would be devastated if elephants disappeared. Mr. Ringer mentioned an organization, Elephants Without Borders (EBW), that the San Diego Zoo Global has partnered up with. EWB is working to take a census of all African elephants in order to better conserve their populations. If you want to learn more, visit Like EWB, if we want to save elephants from extinction, we’ll need to tap into our human intelligence to find ways to save their habitat. And if we save one habitat, we’re one step closer to saving many others.

Sabrina, Real World Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014