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 blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
Interns were given the incredible opportunity to meet with elephant keepers Steve Herbert and Ron Ringer at the San Diego Zoo. We learned all about elephants and how they socialize, eat, and learn. On our tour through the Elephant Care Center, we even got to feed Mary, the matriarch of the herd!
Ron Ringer, Lead Elephant Keeper (left), and Steve Herbert, Senior Elephant Keeper (right), work together in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. They make sure the elephants have a clean exhibit, plenty of food, and lots of love!
Being an elephant keeper isn’t all fun and games. It also involves a lot of hard work. Rakes, shovels, and brooms are only some of the tools the keepers use to keep the elephants comfortable in their immaculately clean exhibits.
Mr. Ringer has been working at the San Diego Zoo for thirty-four years. He has always had a love for animals, and continues to enjoy working with elephants. He also loves sharing his stories about his work with people who visit the Zoo. Here, he is introducing us to one of the elephants, named Mary.
Mr. Herbert has very close relationships with all of the elephants, especially since he has been working with some of them for over twenty years. Here, he is showing interns how to feed Mary some romaine lettuce. Elephants use their trunk, which is a combination of their nose and upper lip, to grab and chew food.
Elephants use the tip of their trunk to pick up objects and food. The tip has a projection on it that’s kind of like a finger that helps to grab the object. Elephants can also use their trunk to suck up smaller pieces of food, such as pellets, and shoot them into their mouths.
Elephants are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat. Each day they are fed about one hundred and twenty-five pounds of food per each! They receive a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and most of all hay.
My fellow intern, Kalee, feeds Mary some lettuce, one of her favorite treats! When training the elephants, the keepers use operant conditioning, which includes the use of positive reinforcement, or rewards in exchange for desired behaviors. However, not all elephants are motivated by the same things. Some are motivated by praise and others are motivated by food.
Mary is the matriarch of the seven-elephant herd at the Zoo. The matriarch is the leader, and all of the elephants look up to her. This mimics natural elephant behavior-in the wild, the leader is always female.
The elephants come to the Elephant Care Center regularly for foot treatments. The keepers are constantly doing foot care to make sure their legs and feet are in good shape and free of infection. Without their feet, elephants wouldn’t be able to move to get food or water. Healthy feet means a good, long life for elephants. The keepers soak, file, and scrub each elephants’ feet to keep them healthy and clean.
Everything about elephants is big. Therefore the walls to their exhibit have to be large enough and strong enough to keep elephants contained but accessible to the keepers so they may care for them. The keepers only interact with the elephants through protected contact, or contact with a barrier between them. They can still touch, feed, and be close to the elephants but they have to keep the elephants safe.
Elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet. Even as babies they need huge amounts of food. This is a photo of Devi the elephant in 1978 when she was a calf in the nursery at the San Diego Zoo. In the photo, she is drinking from the same bottle we saw on display at the Elephant Care Center.
Even elephants don’t particularly like taking their medicine. In order to, Tim Davis, Senior Elephant Keeper, mixes the medicine with different foods. This way, the elephant won’t notice they are consuming the medicine.
My fellow intern, Samantha attempts to lift the giant elephant tusk that came from Ranchipur, the male elephant at the Zoo. It weighs about thirty pounds! Even today, elephants are poached, or killed, for their ivory.
Mr. Ringer taught interns about the conservation efforts involving elephants in the wild. They are actually considered pests in some regions because they can eat farmers’ crops. However, they play a very important role in the ecosystem. Elephants are almost like gardeners; they keep the plants from over growing. If they disappeared from their ecosystem, their habitat would definitely change, thus affecting the other animals that share their habitat.
Mr. Herbert told us several stories from his experience with the elephants. Since they are extremely intelligent animals, they can be good escape artists as well. They are able to solve problems and puzzles. Mr. Hebert us a story about when Ranchipur figured out how to unlock a complicated lock AND maneuver himself around the gates. When the keepers found him, and asked him to return to his exhibit, he went back in without any problems.
Tori, Photography Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014