What’s for Dinner?

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

samantha_week5_picThe San Diego Zoo has seven elephants, and Lead Keeper Ronald Ringer and Senior Keeper Steve Herbert are in charge of feeding all of their large appetites.

During our adventure at Elephant Odyssey, we got to feed Mary, who is the matriarch, which means that she is the head of the family. Watching her eat was a really fascinating experience. When given a mixture of veggies and compressed hay pellets, she would take them in her trunk, flick it like she was trying to shake them all to the bottom of her trunk, and then shoot it into her mouth. She was definitely interested in eating. Mr. Herbert said that if they gave her an opportunity, she would easily eat a whole pineapple. 

Both Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert are experts in the field who’ve each worked as elephant keepers for more than 20 years. Every day is a new experience, because one of the many jobs of an elephant keeper is to make sure that the elephants are always busy. Their high level of intelligence requires keepers to be creative and provide lots of enrichment. One way to keep elephants entertained is to occasionally give them a new and tasty treat. Since elephants spend up to sixteen hours per day eating, changing up the food is a pleasant surprise for these big, gray creatures. Elephants even get seasonal treats. Mr. Herbert told us one of his favorite food stories was about one of the elephants at the Zoo. It was during a hot summer day, the keepers hung up frozen blocks ice with fruit in it (essentially, giant popsicles!) for the elephants to enjoy. Elephants are smart, and they often come up with clever ways to eat their food. On this occasion, an elephant sucked up water into its trunk, lightly drizzled the water onto the frozen fruit blocks, and then drank the trickles from the block without waiting for it to defrost or using its trunk to knock it around. She then snatched the whole fruit pieces right off the top of the block.

Elephants would eat all day if they could, which is why wild elephants can sometimes be considered pests. Wild elephants eat around 165 to 330 pounds of vegetation per day. As elephants habitats have decreased over time and human communities have expanded, elephants and humans have conflicts over resources and use of habitat. Elephants compete with people who utilize space in and around their grazing areas. Because these animals are such good eaters, they have the power to turn jungles into plains; they can also completely wipe out a farm. And a farmer, whose life earnings are dependent on his/her crops, will make sure that elephants stay out of their farms at all costs. This ultimately leads to human-animal conflict, and sometimes the death of wild elephants.

There is a very important aspect to Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert’s job, which is conservation education. They are in charge of educating the public about these amazing giants. By aiming to inform the public (our youths, particularly), keepers such as Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert help to inspire others to make a difference. Telling others about what elephants eat may not seem like a huge step in elephant conservation, but it is. A listener of Mr. Ringer or Mr. Herbert’s may become hungry for a career in elephant keeping or get involved in elephant conservation projects, such as the International Elephant Foundation. Next time you are at the dinner table, talk to a friend about what elephants eat, because it just might save a life.

Samantha, Real World Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014