About Author: Curtis Lehman

Posts by Curtis Lehman


Update on Elephant Vusmusi

Vusmusi takes a stroll.

Vusmusi takes a stroll.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Elephant Msholo: Day & Night, our oldest calf, Vusmusi, loves to play fight through the cables/chains/gates/barriers. He’ll even antagonize Swazi as well as his own mother, Ndula, when there’s a single barrier between them.

Because nine-year-old “Moose” pesters Umngani and her clan whenever he has his mother in the same yard with him, we like to give Umngani and her kids a break from the both of them as much as possible. Whenever it’s just one of them (Moose or Ndlula), and we have Swazi and her clan in with Umngani, things remain rather peaceful along the social front. When Moose or Ndlula are separated from each other, and thus they can’t tag team Umngani, they don’t seem to be willing to be as aggressive.

For those who think that it’s unfair to Umngani that Moose has to be such a brat, you forget that for eight years, Moose had to be subdominant to Umngani. Now the tables are turning, although it’s mostly when Moose has his mom with him in the same yard.

There are, of course, lots of times when these same elephants eat calmly side by side or play in the pool here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or they’ll simply ignore each other and not have to “flex” their dominance. Often, there is more tranquility in the herd when they know we’ve left for the day, because then there isn’t competition for training sessions or other reinforcement opportunities. Watch the action daily on Elephant Cam!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Elephant Msholo: Day & Night

The mighty and majestic Msholo is a wonderful part of the Safari Park's African elephant herd.

The mighty and majestic Msholo is a wonderful part of the Safari Park’s African elephant herd.

Successfully managing a large herd of African elephants is an ever-changing and challenging task for us here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our decisions on which animals go where and with whom and at what time and for how long is just part of our daily planning, and it changes in some form or another on a daily basis. Let’s take a look at our adult bull Msholo’s activities.

Msholo is out with the entire herd almost every day but is always separated from the rest of the herd at night. Why? He is a large, adult bull and is capable of basically doing whatever he wants to do when he’s with any member of the herd. When he’s out with the herd during the day, we consider this a “supervised” social arrangement, in that we can intervene if we feel we absolutely have to. We haven’t had to, because he’s such a wonderful bull. His tractability and willingness to separate whenever we need him to is probably the result of our relationship, training, and management of him.

Where Msholo spends his evenings is decided by space availability, weather conditions, previous nighttime arrangements, which elephants would be adjacent to his yard, etc. He’s always separated from nine-year-old Vus’musi by at least two barriers. Why? “Moose” loves to play fight through the cables/chains/gates/barriers; this goes back to his days when he would do this whenever he could. His play reminds me of that hand-slap game we used to play as kids!

Because Moose seems to possess that magic touch of pushing the right buttons to antagonize whichever elephant is on the other side, we feel that if he is right next to Msholo, somebody is going to get injured, or break their tusks, or destroy the barrier. So, we make sure the two guys are separated by at least two barriers at night.

We obviously want to give Msholo as much space as possible whenever we can, but the larger yards are made available to the larger groupings. Things can change, and they always do with a very dynamic social group.
As the calves get bigger, perhaps we’ll have to establish a bachelor herd of boys, and Msholo can have company in that scenario, or maybe he’ll get to spend some evenings with the entire herd like he does during the day. We do our best to safely make the best herd management decisions based on many factors.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Mabu and Family.


Elephants Mabu and Family

Here's Mabu enjoying some beet pulp.

Here’s Mabu enjoying some beet pulp at his home in Tucson.

I just got back from spending four days in Tucson with the Reid Park Zoo staff and our five African elephants who moved there from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2012: Mabu, Lungile, Samba, Punga, and Tsundzu (see Elephant Moves). The elephants looked great and seemed to be well adjusted to Tucson’s weather. It was around 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius)—a dry heat—all four days, and the elephants enjoyed quite a bit of pool time and mudding up at the mud bogs.

Mabu thinks about going in the pool while Lungile dusts off.

Mabu thinks about going in the pool while Lungile dusts off.

Mabu’s weight is right at 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms), and I enjoyed spending my moments with him while I was out there (he’s my favorite). Mabu also plays very nicely with the two boys when they decide to go in for a dip. Lungile, on the other hand, usually has to wait for an opportune time to play in the pool with the boys, such as when Samba and Mabu are preoccupied with something else, and Samba is far away.

You can watch the herd from the Reid Park Zoo’s Elephant Cam until 1:30 p.m. Then they usually have access to the barns, and they enjoy beating the heat by hanging out inside where it feels like it’s air conditioned compared to the temperatures outside. The calves looked much bigger since I last saw them, and Lungile still looks the same size. Punga has replaced Musi as Lungile’s sparring partner, and Samba still hasn’t figured out how to cross the stream that feeds the pool without getting her feet wet.

We send our staff to visit with the Reid Park Zoo staff and the elephants about every three months. It’s a nice opportunity to say hello and to see how our pachyderm friends are doing.

Mabu and Punga find a great way to cool off.

Mabu and Punga find a great way to cool off.

Would you believe I wrote this blog almost two months ago? That will give you an idea of how busy the Safari Park’s Elephant Team has been! We’ve been doing our best trying to run a day around all of the construction going on for the Park’s newest habitat, Tiger Trails.
Perhaps it would be best to give our readers some “mini” updates instead of trying to catch up on all 13 of our herd members all at once. We’ll give it a shot!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Names.


Elephant Names

Qinisa at one day old.

One of our Elephant Cam viewers asked if our newest elephant calf, Qinisa, knows her name yet. Name recognition depends on the individual animal and the frequency of reinforcement opportunities associated with that name being called and the corresponding correct response. We would then need something to be reinforcing for that animal.

In the case of a baby elephant, we keepers don’t have a lot to offer outside of tactile and visual stimuli. An elephant calf wouldn’t know his or her name until we started associating the name with a reinforcer that we know has established itself as such. So, when a calf starts showing interest in a certain food item, we’ll start calling the calf by name and reinforcing the correct response with that item. It’s usually a nickname that sounds different from that of any other elephant in our herd and one that everyone here can pronounce.

For Qinisa, her nickname is still up for grabs, and we call her a bunch of different names and sounds at the present. Personally, I like “bad baby #12″. 😉

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Quick Qinisa Update.


Quick Qinisa Update

Qinisa on her first day of life.

Our newest African elephant calf, Qinisa, continues to grow at a normal rate. Her weight is now 330 pounds (150 kilograms). She has been playing a lot with half brother Inhlonipho (Neepo), who now weighs over 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms). Neepo keeps his kid gloves on when teaching Qinisa the art of wrestling. This seems to be the pattern between the smallest and the next-smallest members of our herd here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. With half-sister Kami and big-sister Khosi always close enough to officiate the horseplay, perhaps Neepo doesn’t have much of a choice, so he doesn’t go all out like he does with his big brother Ingadze. Never a dull moment with our elephant herd!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Welcome, Little Girl.


Welcome, Little Girl!

We look forward to watching our newest elephant grow!

Elephant keeper Weston must have the magic touch: he’s been on a few 24-hour night-watch shifts here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and has been lucky to witness three elephant births in the three years he’s worked for us.

I received a call at home from Weston at 3:17 in the morning on Tuesday, August 28; he said he thought Swazi’s behavior was becoming more active. I told him to call me back if labor progressed, because we both thought that a birth might be a few hours away. I wondered (and really wished) if I could get another hour of sleep before I started making phone calls. I contemplated my next move. Lying in bed with my eyes closed while holding onto my cell phone, I received a text at 3:32 a.m. that read “I’d say we are under way.” While getting dressed in the dark, I managed to send out two texts to inform others of Swazi’s sudden change of behavior when, 14 minutes later, Weston texted me “baby is out.” Just like Swazi’s last calf, once she shows she’s in real labor, it’s over quickly!

Two incoming volunteer night watchers missed the birth by five minutes, but two others got to see the whole thing. By the time I rolled in, everything was pretty calm: Swazi and the newborn in our lower holding yard, son Macembe socializing through the cables with Umngani’s clan and Kami and Emanti out in the main yard. Weston said the calf got up within 15 minutes of birth, and Swazi was moving the calf around with her feet quite a bit. (Elephant moms scuff their feet along their newborn’s body to remove the amniotic sac and to get the calf to start breathing. It looks extremely aggressive, to say the least). Weston originally thought it was a boy, but the volunteers thought it was a girl. I didn’t commit either way until some daylight came out and I had personally observed a few urinations. Even when I was 95 percent sure it was a girl, I couldn’t come out and say it right away, because six boys in a row will do that to you! It will take staff many months before we quit saying “he” when referring to the newest calf.

Because it was important that she received the colostrum from Mom’s milk, I decided to separate Macembe into the lower yard and have Mom and new baby in the upper yard. Weston said that even though Swazi was shooing him away, Macembe still managed to sneak in a couple of quick nursings (Kami was the same way when her mother, Umoya, had Emanti). The upper yard is also more level, which would give baby a better chance at nursing.

Well, our new baby definitely isn’t Macembe-size, that’s for sure! As she attempted to nurse, it was obvious that she’d really have to stretch to reach long-legged Swazi’s nipples. We all started to wonder if she even could. Not seeing any success has a way of working on your anxieties. When we decided to try to weigh the baby just after 10 in the morning, we stopped Mom down the hallway, which allowed the calf to get into a great position to nurse. She found it! So, just over six hours after being born, the calf finally nursed (always one of two “huge-relief” milestones we like to see). Eventually, the calf nursed again, each successive nursing getting better and better, and now she’s good to go.

The next milestone was Mom passing her placenta. We could see that Swazi was still having contractions, and she looked great physically and behaviorally, so it became a waiting game with much worrying on our part. According to our data collections on 12 births, the placenta passed by the ninth hour or it didn’t. Swazi passed her placenta at 6:48 p.m. So doing the math, that’s over 16 hours. Who cares? It’s out! It looked completely intact, so we shoveled it into a plastic-lined trash can, double-bagged it, and put it in one of our extra refrigerators. Now it’s in the hands of our pathologists, who just love dissecting and studying these things.

Now it’s back to new-baby-normal for all of us. Macembe is back with Mom as well. He sure got the message this time around: as far as milk is concerned, it’s over! He vocalized his displeasure at Momma’s disciplining ways, and for now, keeps his distance. If all continues to go well, Swazi’s clan will meet the other moms and calves today. We’ll have Msholo join the gang on Sunday.

So keep your fingers crossed that all continues to go well, and hey, it’s a GIRL!!!!!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Vus’Musi.


Elephant Vus’Musi

Here’s Musi as a two year old.

While we here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park wait for Swazi’s second calf to arrive, let’s focus on Vus’musi (Musi). He is 8½ years old now and is a growing subadult, weighing around 5,600 pounds (2,540 kilograms). With his #1 play pal, Lungile, now over at the Reid Park Zoo in Arizona, Musi spends most of his playtime with adult male Msholo. Lately, Musi’s been trying to usurp adult female Umngani’s ranking over him, and when he’s with his mom, Ndlula, he pretty much has the upper hand. When his mom is separated out, he cautiously tests his hierarchy status without her. Remember, these are wild animals with normal, wild-animal behavior.

For more than eight years, Umngani has been able to displace Musi at will when he’s been away from his mom; but Musi isn’t little anymore, and he’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Umngani has a history of always backing down when push comes to shove (with Mabu, Ndlula, Msholo, and now Musi somewhat). We know she’s the main protector of her clan (children Khosi, Ingadze, and Neepo), as well as of youngsters Kami and Emanti, so we’d like to see her not lose her rank to Musi, but the inevitability of it all is unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

Managing an ever-changing herd of African elephants is a tough and educating challenge. There are not many institutions that have this many elephants—calves, adult females, and an adult bull—hanging out together every day. We use our ability to separate them into whatever social set up we want to lessen aggression toward each other while still trying to allow our entire herd being together most of the time. We’ve separated Ndlula and her younger son, Luty, out overnight once so far, and it got us the desired effect: Musi wasn’t assertive toward Umngani for a couple of days. These animal-management decisions are well thought out, mostly dependent on what we observe daily with their behavior. It’s still only delaying the inevitable of Musi outranking Umngani someday.

There’s a lot more involved with what we do socially with the elephants, too much to write down here. Just know we also don’t want anything to go as far as an injury, but we are talking elephants here. We pretty much let them work out their own hierarchy, their own breeding, and their own raising of their families. We could always place them in the safest scenarios to have the least chance of any elephant being aggressed upon, but that would mean having every elephant separated in a different yard with just a mom and her youngest calf together. Not much of a herd, right?

Musi’s not at breeding age, but he’s right at the age where he may have been kicked out of the herd if our elephants were in the wild under a true matriarchal society, so I’d like to think he’s at an awkward age where he’s testing everything socially. Think teenager. Eventually, we might have to place him with Msholo to start our first bachelor herd, which will be something new for us as well. Just think what fun we’ll have in six years when all the boys will be around Musi’s age now!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Swazi Update: Baby Due?


Elephant Swazi Update: Baby Due?

African elephant Swazi’s due-date range, according to all our calf data, was to fall between July 25 and August 24. We can see that the baby is situated mostly on her right side and is still up high, so physically we don’t see any changes yet. We get and send in her daily urine samples to our lab here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, with a turnaround time for results about two days later. Her progesterone levels haven’t dipped down below a number consistently with what we’d consider pre-labor (2 to 4 days away) levels. Regardless, baby will come when baby will come!

It looks like it won’t be this week at least. Schedules, staff, and volunteers are all on standby; we just don’t want to start too early and get burned out like we did with Umngani’s first (way back in the day). If we don’t see anything happening soon, I might start night watches anyway, because I’m getting antsy myself!

We did miss Luty and Tsundzu’s births (Emanti’s didn’t count because we were busy with Mac’s night watch), so births can come on rather quickly, and I’d like to try and film the birth for research purposes if we get lucky enough and there’s some light to see it. We may get lucky and see her drop her mucus plug or actually see the water break, but that’s been very rare for us, since most births have been under darkness.

Swazi is still nursing Macembe, so he’s in for a rude awakening soon. Since she is the dominant female, this being her second calf, and we’ve had three born out in the main east yard, we’re not overly concerned if Swazi were to give birth out in the main east yard. Having her give birth in the holding yard allows for filming, better observations, safety, and simpler separations away from others if we feel they might hinder her bonding time or if we have to intervene. I think Macembe will be the only one in with her this time. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be in close quarters with her anyway—she’s pretty bossy!

Gotta go. Busy, busy busy.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Birth Watch.

Watch our elephants daily on Elephant Cam.


Elephant Birth Watch

Ingadze, shown here as a baby, will be a big brother soon!

African elephant Umngani is pregnant with her third calf, making her the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s first soon-to-be three-time mom. We’re expecting a September baby, but her due date could be as late as October 8. Based on the results of her progesterone assays, we’ll probably start our volunteer night watches sometime next week.

We currently have 17 African elephants, and this will be the 11th calf from this herd (9 out of 10 births currently surviving). We have been bringing Umngani’s daughter Khosi, who turned 5 on September 11, and son Ingadze, who is 2½ years old, into the upper and lower holding yards every evening in preparation for the upcoming birth.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Our Newest Park Elephant.



Our Newest Park Elephant

Welcome, Sundzu!

Back on the morning of December 27, 2010, we were happily surprised by the birth of Litsemba’s second calf. Despite having our birth watch/research team ready to go and monitoring her hormone levels as they fell to birthing levels, she gave birth before we thought she was very close. The calf was up and walking with the rest of the herd out in our main yard as we came in to start our day. A quick lookover from outside the yard, and we could tell where he was born and that Litsemba had passed her placenta. He obviously had met all of his herdmates, was nursing, and if he had had a sign around his neck saying “I weigh 230 pounds” we wouldn’t have had to do anything that morning. Well, that little guy now weighs 486 pounds (221 kilograms) and has had a name since early March.


Tsandzikle (ta-Sond-zuh-Kee-lay) was named after David Tappan, an Elephant Odyssey donor who passed away last year. The Hebrew name Dawid was probably derived from Hebrew (dwd) meaning “beloved”; the SiSwati language had two translations for “beloved”: the adjective Tsandzekako (ta-Sond-zuh gah-go) or the noun Tsandzikle. We liked the noun version the best, and we usually call him by the nickname “Sund-zu.” We didn’t want him to be called Mister Ga-GO!

What a playful little guy!

He’s about as cute as they come. Sundzu loves to solicit attention and scratches from all of his keepers and constantly patrols the fence line as we clean the yards, hoping to pull us away from our never-ending clean up. Who can resist that face? He is a great source of entertainment for us because of his playful nature and the way he interacts with the other three amigos born last year. He’s got a great trumpet, he always seems to be running somewhere, and he has the full repertoire of calf behavior we’ve grown to love and adore: the threatening “scary face” they all make, plowing through the hay, challenging anything and everything that does or doesn’t move, climbing onto whoever he can, and playing in the mud bogs. He seems to be the most playful calf we’ve had, and he loses track of Mom’s whereabouts quite often because of it. You can see his anxiety building up once he realizes Mom’s not around, and then comes his mighty roar that gets Mom a runnin’ to the rescue!

His big brother, Impunga, is mostly indifferent to him. Poor Punga has been displaced by Mom so much that he roars for mercy when she just looks at him funny. He’s not the apple of Mom’s eye anymore, but he still hangs around close enough to benefit from her social protection but far enough away to avoid her trunk swats and tusks. We try to make up for it by giving Punga lots of lovin’ and training sessions as often as we can. He still enjoys wrestling with ‘Musi and can’t resist a mud bog dog pile on a hot day.

The best way to see all this activity is, of course, to come out to the Safari Park and spend a few hours watching our amazing herd do their thing. If you see me out at the Elephant Viewing Patio for our daily Elephant Enrichment activity at 11:30 a.m., introduce yourselves and say hello. That’s all for now; more snippets to come.


Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Park Elephants: Busy Times.