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!
Ron Ringer, the Lead Elephant Keeper and Steve Herbert, a Senior Elephant Keeper, spent the day with us answering questions, telling stories, and best of all, showing us three female elephants at a very close distance. They both have a deep love and appreciation for their careers and were very excited to talk about and demonstrate what their daily lives are like at the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center.
Interns Belle, Olivia, and I sit on hay bails in the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center barn, excitedly awaiting the Q&A portion of our time with Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert. Hay is one of the San Diego Zoo’s elephants’ main food supply along with fruits and vegetables. Elephants are never fed any kind of meat however because they are strictly herbivores.
The interns diligently take notes as Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert answer questions pertaining to elephant conservation, their careers, and everything in between. Due to the Elephant Care Center’s barn being somewhat of a central hub amongst the elephant keepers, countless other keepers came in and out during our time in there.
After we had asked all of our questions, the interns were taken just outside of the barn to observe three elephants: Tembo, Sumithi (Smitty), and Devi. We were all very excited to see them up close!
Mr. Ringer fed the elephants snacks through the iron-grated wall. The degree to which both Mr. Hebert and Mr. Ringer adore their job and all of the elephants was easily apparent during our time with them. They smiled, laughed, and seemed to even enjoy observing our excitement.
Due to an elephant’s immense size, it cannot perspire over its entire body because it would become dehydrated at a dangerous rate. In order to stay cool, in addition flapping their large ears to lower their body temperature by up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, a unique elephant adaption is that they just perspire only around their toenails. You can see it here in the picture!
This female Asian elephant is trying to get Mr. Ringer’s attention for treats. If you look closely at the end of her trunk, you can see that there is a special finger-like prehensile tip adaptation. (Prehensile means adapted for grasping objects.) One way to tell an African elephant apart from an Asian elephant is to see how many of these prehensile tips are on the end of their trunk. Asian elephants have one and African elephants have two. This difference does not inhibit the Asian elephant in comparison to the African elephant.
I’ve always loved elephants. In fact, at one point in my life they were my favorite animal. There’s no scrutiny amongst how majestic and beautiful they can be. During our session, this particular one, an Asian elephant, made direct eye contact with me. In that moment, not only did I realize the true beauty of this incredible species, but I also felt her intelligence alive within her beautiful eyes. It was easily apparent that she evaluating me and more so than anything else, wondering if I had any food. It was short lived, but I will never forget how deep of a connection I felt with one of the most amazing species on our planet.
Tools like rakes, brooms, wheelbarrows, and shovels are used daily. In fact, in our two hours there alone, tractors, wheelbarrows, and shovels were used multiple times. From cleaning up poop to transporting food, an elephant keeper’s job is more than just petting and playing with animals; it’s predominantly back-breaking manual labor.
Our presenters told us that elephants are about as smart as a four or five year old child. If you are at all familiar with the tendencies of that age group, you know one thing for sure: they get bored quick. In order to keep the elephant’s occupied, the elephant keepers put food in puzzle-like containers which require the elephant’s to work to get food in only small increments. This is all part of animal enrichment, which by definition, provides Zoo animals with stimulating environments and enhances their well-being.
These two female Asian elephants, Smitty, and Devi, are inseparable friends. They eat together, play together, and spend nearly every waking moment by each other’s side. Apparently, one night the two needed to be separated into different quarters. The next morning, they reunited by thoroughly checking and smelling each other and intertwining their trunks in an embrace.
Wesley, Photo Team
Fall Session 2014