Elephants: Eat Your Vegetables!

Luti searches for food while wearing some!

Luti searches for food while wearing some!

That’s what we said to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s elephants when we introduced celery, lettuce, and cucumber into their daily diet. Some elephants were more easy to convince than others. For example, Msholo was used to different types of produce when he lived at the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida, and he happily munched on everything. Little Qinisa didn’t know whether to play with it or eat it!

We slowly introduced the produce into their diet by scattering it around the yards at different times of the day to get them used to the idea. Then during our training sessions, we would pair the produce with our alfalfa pellets to see if they would accept it. Sometimes, we would give some cucumber followed by a handful of pellets. Other times, we would put pellets in lettuce and wrap them like a burrito. Musi would eat it while Umngani would eat the pellets inside and let the lettuce drop out of her mouth.

With the younger elephants, we never know what response we are going to get! Luti would take lettuce and then drop it. Ingadze would take it and give it back to us, while Qinisa would just throw hers back at us. The elephants have their preferences too. They like cucumber the best, followed by lettuce and then celery. Emanti doesn’t take lettuce leaves, but he will take a whole head of lettuce and eat it.

Now the whole herd enjoys produce, whether it is scattered in the yard or used in training sessions. On a hot day, cool vegetables are always popular. We keepers always enjoy making things more enriching for them. Giving animals opportunities includes both meeting their nutritional needs and giving them choices. We learn something new about our elephants every day.

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Training Elephant Qinisa.