About Author: Curtis Lehman

Posts by Curtis Lehman


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 3


Vus’musi got busy checking out the sights, smells, sounds, and snacks of his new home.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.” Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Since Fresno’s climate is similar to San Diego’s and they’re just up the road, so to speak, having ’Musi go there on loan was a logical choice, especially if we’d like to have him return someday. (Can you picture Umngani’s reaction if that were to happen? Noooooooooo!)

Waiting for our arrival was the entire elephant care staff of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. We all stood back to watch the unloading of his crate, letting the professionals do their thing. As soon as the crate was where we wanted it, we had ’Musi present his front feet for us inside the crate so we could remove his tethers. Then we let him back himself out into his new digs. He cautiously walked down a long outside corridor, into the barn, and finally into a large stall where he could hear, smell, and see his new herd-mates two stalls away.

’Musi seemed quite excited that there were other elephants around. His attitude and behavior towards Mindy and I confirmed that he was a very well-trained elephant, able to adapt to change, and just awesome overall. Their staff couldn’t believe how calm and sweet ’Musi seemed after such a journey.

Mindy and I stayed with ’Musi and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff for five more days, getting him accustomed to his side of the barn and adjoining outside yard. We worked closely with their Elephant Lead, Ashley, and their Elephant Manager, Vernon, to show them ’Musi’s behavioral repertoire, his verbal and visual hand signals, and point out some of the subtle nuances of his personality. All of his major sessions were filmed and many discussions took place to make sure we were all on the same page, allowing for a smooth transition for ’Musi and his new keepers.

One of the fun things to watch was seeing ’Musi getting used to the new sounds and sights of his outside environment. The zoo sits fairly close to railroad tracks, and watching his eyes and expressions whenever a choo-choo rolled by was priceless. It reminded me of Mabu and Lungile in Tucson, the first few times a jet fighter flew over the skies above them. Eventually, they all habituate to their surroundings and then they don’t react at all, unless it’s something completely new, and even that goes away in a short time.

Many blog readers who read the news about the move wondered whether ’Musi misses his family or herd mates, or if Ndlula misses her son, etc. What you’ll find in the animal world—whether through observation or personally working with them—is that animals live in the “now.” They take a situation that they find themselves in, deal with it, and move on. If you think about it, in the wild, an animal that’s “reminiscing” or “daydreaming” would be easy prey. I’m sure that ’Musi would remember any of his herd mates if they were to cross paths once again, but I’m certain he’s not thinking “I wonder what Mom and my brother are up to?” or “I wonder who Msholo is sparring with now that I’m gone?” Likewise, Ndlula and the others may have “rumbled” to communicate with or locate ’Musi, but after not receiving a response, quickly focused their attention back to the present situation of eating and watching out for Swazi.

The most up-to-date news on ’Musi is that he’s no longer under quarantine, and will be going out into one of the main exhibits soon. Within a few weeks, he will be formally introduced to the girls out in the main exhibit. I’ll be heading up to Fresno to witness the introductions and will blog about it when I get back.

All of our elephants (any of our animals for that matter) that have moved away “on-loan” are still “our” elephants (San Diego Zoo Global). Rest assured that our ’Musi-boy is in good hands with the Fresno staff. He’ll win them over like he did with us on that first day on February 23, 2004. He’s all grown up now and it’s his time to carry on what his name means: Vus’musi, “To build a family.”


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 2


Vus’musi travelled in a crate built with his comfort and welfare in mind.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.” If you missed it before, you can still read Part 1, here.

There’s a lot of planning that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant: paperwork, legal permits, contracts, travel routes, pit stops, escorts, pre-ship physicals, and the list goes on and on. From a training perspective, a successful move requires a lot of desensitization training, planning, and the ability to switch focus or adapt, along with precise timing. We put all these, and more, into getting Vus’Musi ready for his big adventure.

Originally, we thought we would move ‘Musi near the end of September, giving us plenty of time to desensitize him to the actual elephant crate and some of the approximations of placing heavy rear metal bars behind him to secure him inside. The move date was eventually set for an August evening, and ‘Musi was ready. For temperature concerns, an evening move made a lot of sense, as it was still summer. Our route also took heavy traffic out of the picture. For ‘Musi’s comfort, a swamp cooler was attached to one of the forward vents of the transport unit, just in case we felt he needed to be cooled off.

As we began to prepare, we had a quite a few things going for us; ‘Musi was one of our best trained elephants, we had experience with crate training elephants, and we had enough keepers with great relationships with him to pull it off. We decided that four of us (Mindy, Keith, Dion, and I) would be involved with the main training of the front leg tethers (Karissa also helped out on certain days). On the other hand, we also had some challenges. The timing of the move wasn’t very far removed from his last major tusk procedure, in which he was fully leg tethered and eventually darted on his rear end with an anesthetic tranquilizer (and yes—they do have great memory).  After having had many tusk procedures, ‘Musi is very wary of anyone behind him, especially if it’s someone he doesn’t know.

Training moved along rather smoothly—so much so, that we started to desensitize him to “activity” behind him while his front legs were tethered to the crate. Unfortunately, ‘Musi spooked himself when his tail brushed along the crate; he reacted like he had just been darted again (at least that’s what it looked like to the keepers). It was at that point that ‘Musi realized that he was actually secured to the crate. The ordeal was a major setback and we were two weeks out from the big day. We had to switch focus quickly and make every session count. Our revised plan was to make the leg tethers and anklets a fun and highly reinforced “put-on and take-off game.” In a nutshell, we put anklets on both ankles at the west main gate, then sent him into the west holding yards and then into the west barn where we removed the anklets. At first, we removed them anywhere in the barn, but eventually we did this inside the crate that was located outside of the last barn stall.

We knew we wanted to have both front legs tethered for the move and we knew that he would notice that he had a length of leg tether (with its weight and sound) attached to his first leg, when we needed to ask for his other leg to tether to the crate. So while we continued with the “game,” we approximated and simulated the sound and weight of a leg tether. First, we attached a small length of tether to his first anklet, and when we asked him to drop his first leg to the ground to give us his other leg, we would drop a heavy, unattached tether onto the ground right next to his foot to simulate the sound of an attached tether. We also knew that we couldn’t afford another setback, so all approximations were done with ‘Musi not tethered to the crate—that would only happen on the actual day of the move.

Meanwhile, my staff and I had several meetings to practice the rest of the procedures for securing him into the crate (while he was nowhere around, of course). We also went over all the different scenarios that could take place during the move, along with input from our accompanying veterinarian, as well as the owner of the moving vehicle. All this preparation set the stage for the big day.

To make a long story short, ‘Musi was about as perfect as we could expect—and so was the entire move! We left the Safari Park with ‘Musi at 7 p.m. Wednesday night and arrived at Fresno Chaffee Zoo at 4:20 a.m. Thursday morning—just over nine hours of total travel time. Mindy and I accompanied him for the trip, and  our familiar voices at the four pit stops we made probably reassured him that he wasn’t completely “alone” in this new adventure. I’m sure the watermelon, beet pulp, and choice browse that we gave him during those stops helped, too! Throughout the trip, ‘Musi was under constant, remote video surveillance by our vet, who was in a separate vehicle behind the truck. There were three chase vehicles in all, in addition to a CHP escort for half the trip up.

In a situation like this, experience is invaluable. Having the crate available ahead of time to approximate the behaviors needed is a must-have. Thanks again to Stephen Fritz and his crew for another successful move. His experience and expertise, along with his continuing innovation to improve the travel crates and their creature comforts, make for a pleasing experience throughout the process. Fritz helped us move our five Asian elephants to our Zoo in downtown San Diego, our five African elephants to Tucson, Msholo here from Orlando, Florida, and now Vus’musi to Fresno (and that’s just with the current herd here at the Safari Park!)

Jim Oosterhuis, San Diego Zoo Global veterinarian, has accompanied all of our elephant moves, and he’d be the first to tell you that he was happy that he didn’t have to do anything medically with ‘Musi because everything went smoothly! The keepers at the Safari Park did a fantastic job preparing for and then implementing the move safely and efficiently. Having the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff waiting for his arrival and dealing with the unloading and cleaning of the crate so that Mindy and I could focus on ‘Musi, was something we both immensely appreciated in the wee morning hours of an all-nighter. But more about that—and how ‘Musi is doing—next time.

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1.


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1


Vus’musi, seen here in 2012 at the Safari Park, was recently relocated to the Fresno Chafee Zoo.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.”

Born on February 23, 2004, African elephant Vus’musi has grown into a young, handsome bull that outweighs each of the adult females in the Park’s herd. Known to his keepers as “Moose” or “‘Musi,” his genetics put a high value on him as a potential breeder for any zoo wanting to breed this species (including the Safari Park, someday in the future). His sire was a wild, unknown bull from Africa and his mom is our adult female, Ndlulamitsi. Within our current herd, he’s only related to his mom and his half brother, Lutsandvo. Most of you are no doubt wondering why ‘Musi was moved—excellent question!

Elephant natural history provides part of the answer. Behaviorally speaking, males eventually get displaced out of the herd in their early teens, so it was just a matter of time before Ndlulamitsi would have started to displace him more than she already had. Also, as ‘Musi matured he would eventually start going into musth—and it’s during these times of elevated testosterone that the youngster’s sparring with our adult bull, Msholo, would have gone from playful to assertive, aggressive behavior in an attempt to establish dominance. We always kept the two males apart overnight, because they enjoyed sparring so much that we thought that there was a greater chance for chipped tusks (or worse) if they were together. Keeping them apart when they were both in musth would have proven quite a challenge for us, had we kept both males at the Park.

Another reason for moving ‘Musi is his genetics, which placed him high on the Species Survival Plan (SSP) list of recommended bulls for breeding. Also, Fresno Chaffee Zoo was in the near-completion phase of its new African Adventure exhibit, had acquired two females from a sanctuary in Arkansas, and was looking for a bull to breed its two females. And Fresno Chaffee Zoo Director Scott Barton was quite familiar with our program and our elephants, as he had been involved with our move of five other herd members to Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, when he was director there. Altogether, it was deemed a good fit for ‘Musi.

‘Musi was Msholo’s favorite sparring partner. He was also, arguably, our best trained elephant, having been born into our training system and having had the luxury of getting lots of attention and individual sessions at an early age, and throughout his life. Easily a favorite among his keepers, ‘Musi’s demeanor is so calm and relaxed that many a new keeper “cut their teeth” with him, learning the techniques and philosophy of our positive, trust-based training system. Keith Crew, a senior keeper, has been one of ‘Musi’s primary trainers the entire 11 ½ years, and much of ‘Musi’s attitude and behavioral repertoire can be attributed to Keith’s long-term care of him. So, in answer to the question in your mind right now, the answer is yes, we all love our ‘Musi-boy, and we are excited for the next chapter in his life.

In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll tell you a little more about ‘Musi’s new home and herd mates—and all the planning and care that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant.

Stay tuned!

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, A Tusk Task.


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?