About Author: Nora Kigin

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Elephant Shaba: Introductions

Mary, left, and Shaba

It has been over a month now since we began introductions with elephants Shaba and Mary at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey (see post Shaba’s Next Step). The progress has been steady and encouraging. Shaba and Mary first met each other through a fence. We observed their interactions to get a better idea of what to expect when they would be in the same yard together. These fence-line introductions lasted for almost a week, getting longer each day until the two could be in adjacent yards overnight.

Mary didn’t seem very interested in being aggressive with Shaba through the fence. In fact, if there was food anywhere in the yard, Mary didn’t seem interested in Shaba at all! But Shaba was interested in Mary and initiated most of the contact between them. At night, when they had adjacent yards, Mary chose to sleep on the opposite side of her yard, far from the shared fence and closer to Sumithi, Devi, and Tembo, while Shaba slept close to the shared fence. Mary seemed to be drawn to what was comfortable and familiar to her, and Shaba seemed to be reaching out to establish new companionship.

Encouraged by the positive interactions and lack of aggression we saw, we moved to the next step. We began with Shaba and Mary together in our largest yard with small amounts of food placed throughout. Mary was more concerned with the food than she was with Shaba. Shaba followed Mary around and initiated most of the contact. From time to time, Mary would have enough of her new shadow and put her very quickly in her place. To do that, Mary would chase Shaba and give her a fairly good push.

Any time we do introductions, we have keepers placed all around the yard taking notes, filming, observing, and ready to break up any fight that looks like it could get out of hand. What can we possibly do to stop two massive animals from fighting? It’s amazing what some loud noise can do to get their attention! After that, we call them to separate ends of the yard and give them their space. Happily, we never had to interfere with Shaba and Mary. Shaba has good instinct. When Mary pushed, she braced herself and waited it out. Running away only makes a more dominant elephant want to chase, so standing still makes the aggression get boring pretty fast. Eventually, their interactions turned into gentle touches and even some instances of eating side by side from the same feeder. Mary is not one to share her food, so that was a big deal!

Once we were certain that Shaba and Mary could get along well in the same yard, we brought Sumithi (Smitty, as we affectionately call her) into the adjacent yard for a concurrent fence-line introduction. Shaba and Mary were still together, but Shaba had the choice of interacting with Mary in the yard or visiting Smitty at the fence. She balanced her time fairly evenly between them. Shaba seems eager to make new friends. Smitty, on the other hand, was more eager to let Shaba know who was going to be the boss. She spent much more time at the fence than Mary had and initiated more contact in the form of pokes and jabs. Nothing serious, just something a human child might do to a sibling just to be annoying. Shaba would leave when she had her fill but never stayed away for very long.

On August 16, we began introductions with Mary, Smitty, and Shaba together in the yard. Again we had food spread out and had keepers stationed all around. These introductions have been a little less peaceful than the previous ones. Smitty does more chasing and pushing than Mary did. We’ve seen some interesting behavior from Mary. A few times, she made her way over to stand between Smitty and Shaba when Smitty was pushing, and other times she joined in. For the most part, though, Mary stays out of it, more involved in feeding herself than policing anything.

The pushing and shoving is perfectly normal. Elephants live in a hierarchy. Each one is dominant or submissive depending on which other elephants are around. We need to give them opportunities to establish their dominance and settle into a comfortable herd structure so that we can start leaving them together for longer periods of time and eventually have a complete, cohesive herd of female elephants. It just might take awhile for everyone to find their place.

We will continue introductions with Shaba, Smitty, and Mary for awhile before we go to the next step, which will be fence-line contact with Tembo and/or Devi. Their behavior and level of comfort will be the determining factors. Generally, we do introductions first thing in the morning, so feel free to stop by and observe with us! We’re happy to point out “who’s who” in the yard and tell you what has been happening. So far we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve seen in such a short time.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Shaba’s Next Step

With Connie (left) gone, Shaba (right) is showing signs that she will integrate beautifully into the herd at Elephant Odyssey.

With the passing of elephant Connie at the San Diego Zoo, we know that many of our guests are concerned about her companion, Shaba (see post Elephant ICU Loses a Member). I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the things we’ve observed from her that give us hope that she will adjust to life without her long-time companion and thrive in her new herd.

After their quarantine period ended, Connie and Shaba were given opportunities to explore some of the yards and come out into the Elephant Care Center stalls for their daily treatments. Shaba took to these new areas with eagerness. She has been curious about each new place, exploring every area that could possibly have a treat hiding in it (and usually there is something good to find).  She has also been very outgoing when it comes to meeting new elephants. She is the first to want to approach the fence and interact with them. She is gentle when she reaches through to smell and touch the others, and not frightened or put off when they are a little less gentle with her. From the beginning, we have seen signs that she will integrate beautifully into our herd.

Yesterday, the keepers and veterinary staff had the difficult but necessary task of relieving Connie of her pain and discomfort by euthanasia. It was emotional for everyone involved. Foremost in our minds was the uncertainty of how Shaba would react when we would bring her in to say goodbye. We know from various studies that elephants have some understanding of death, so when an elephant passes in our care, we give their herd mates a chance to see and touch the body. After we knew that Connie was gone, we cleared the area and stood silently as Shaba was lead into the special-needs facility. At first she was focused on all of the people, but after a moment she saw her friend. It was a solemn and precious experience to be in that room. Shaba approached Connie with some hesitation. She reached out and touched her trunk. She backed away for a moment and vocalized, but kept her eyes on Connie, came back, and touched her again. There was a keeper nearby with treats and an open door to the yard so Shaba could decide how long to stay and when to go. She walked over to her keeper for a treat and then back to Connie a couple of times before deciding to leave the area. In total the interaction lasted only a short time, but we believe it was a significant step in helping her to deal with her loss.

For the rest of the day Shaba was outside being introduced to Mary, our dominant female Asian elephant. They had a very good interaction. They touched and smelled each other through the fence on and off throughout the afternoon. Mary asserted her dominance from time to time, and Shaba behaved exactly the way a more submissive elephant should. We are confident that when the time comes to put them together in a yard, the process will go smoothly. Shaba spent the night in our biggest yard for the first time last night. It was also her first night without Connie, so we had a keeper here to observe her. She did very well. She spent a good amount of time near Mary at the fence and the rest of the time either sleeping or exploring. She has a very secure and independent personality.

We will continue to watch Shaba closely to make sure that she is coping with this difficult change as well as possible. We are grateful that Shaba had Connie with her to help her with the adjustment to her new home and that we had the wonderful opportunity to know Connie and to work with her. She will be missed not only by Shaba but by all of the staff and our guests who love and care for each of the animals here at Elephant Odyssey.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Connie and Shaba Out and About.



Connie and Shaba Out and About

Connie, left, and Shaba check to see what goodies an enrichment item may hold.

When are elephants Connie and Shaba are going to be out in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey habitat (see post Welcome, Elephants Connie and Shaba). Actually, they have been out nearly every morning for the past month. When you will be able to see them? That is not an easy answer. Our focus has been to get them accustomed to the new yards, gates, sounds, smells, buses, and people at a pace that is comfortable for them. We can’t promise that you will see them at any particular time or in any particular place, but we are certainly making progress and meeting new goals every day.

We started with moving them out of the quarantine area to one of the larger areas at our Elephant Care Center. Up until that point, they could hear and smell the other elephants but had not seen them. Once they moved out, they could see the others but not have fence-line contact yet. The next step was to give them time in the big yard with the pool. We placed food throughout and allowed them to explore on their own. This is the part I think some of our guests were hoping to see: Connie and Shaba bursting out of their quarantine area into this huge yard to run and play. With older elephants that are unsure of their new surroundings, that scenario didn’t happen. Connie and Shaba have both been cautious when going into new areas, and they both react when there are loud noises or crowds around, so we don’t want to spring everything on them at once.

The first day out in the big yard, Shaba explored a little more than Connie, but not very much. They seemed pretty content to eat the closest food and then wait at the gate to go back into the facility. Every day they get a little braver and explore a little more. They come when called, and we walk them toward the pool. Shaba will go all the way down the yard, but Connie would rather not right now. That’s fine. We aren’t going to push her to go anywhere she doesn’t want to go. If you do come early in the morning and happen to see them out in the yard, you may see Shaba picking food out of the utility trees and Connie hanging out by the gate, waiting to go back inside.

Connie is in her mid-forties and doesn’t necessarily want to run around and play. We will give her every opportunity to do so, but so far she seems to like to pick one place to stand and wait for her keepers to give her more attention. She will be easy for you to spot as she has a head-bobbing habit that is pretty distinct from the typical gentle sway of older elephants. Connie has been doing it her whole life and is not likely to stop just because she is in a new place, so if you knew her in Tucson, you’ll recognize her here!

We have extended their time in the yard a little bit every day. At this point, they are usually out there when guests start to arrive and bus tours begin to go by. They are getting used to all the sights and sounds. We have also been able to bring them into the care center stalls and do their daily care routine in front of our guests almost every morning. We are watching their behavior closely and going at the pace they seem most comfortable with. We are excited to be able to show them off and to tell everyone all about them, and they seem to be doing very well with all the attention.
The most recent development is that Connie and Shaba have begun to have brief fence-line contact with Asian elephant Sumithi. We keep it brief so we can make detailed observations of the interactions and get a good idea of what future introductions will be like. We want to keep everything on a good note as much as we can. All three elephants were very interested in touching and smelling each other, which is very encouraging!

Connie and Shaba have been so much fun to get to know, and we are so pleased with the progress they have made! We will continue to try new things and extend the time they spend in different places and in contact with the other elephants. This means you may get a chance to see them very soon if you haven’t already, but where and when will always be determined by their level of comfort and the next step in getting them introduced to the rest of our herd.

Thank you for loving our elephants as much as we do and welcoming Connie and Shaba to their new home here at the San Diego Zoo!

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Welcome, Elephants Connie and Shaba!

Shaba, left, and Connie get comfortable in San Diego.

Connie and Shaba came to us from the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, just about a month ago (see post Elephant Moves). Their new lives in San Diego started with one very long and exciting day: they were loaded into crates first thing in the morning, lifted onto a flatbed truck, and given a police escort all the way to the San Diego Zoo! On arrival, they were welcomed into our special-needs facility at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, where they will stay for the duration of their mandatory quarantine period.

The special-needs facility has everything we need to get these two amazing animals acclimated to living here and being a part of our herd. If you’ve never taken a tour of our facility, you may not know what we have inside the building at the Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center. There is a large stall with cushioned flooring big enough for double occupancy. This is where we do our training sessions. There are mesh training walls, hanging toys and feeders, and a chute for more up-close health inspections. The special-needs facility also has its own yard, separate from the other elephant yards, where Connie and Shaba can get sun, dirt, mud, fresh air, and some downtime when they aren’t working with keepers. We are excited for the day we can let them into our bigger yards and watch them explore, but in the meantime, we are keeping them pretty busy!

Connie, 45, and Shaba, 32, spent their first day here relaxing, eating, and checking out their new space. We wanted to give them some time to get used to the idea that some big changes had happened. We were fortunate that Bruce and Gale, keepers who have worked with Connie and Shaba for decades, made the journey with them and stayed to help with the transition.

On day two, we started some very basic training sessions. Connie and Shaba were trained in a similar manner at Reid Park. However, some of the words we use are a little different, so basically they are being taught a new dialect. We teach them the new vocabulary the same way we train any behavior with any of our animals, using positive reinforcement. It’s kind of like a game of hot and cold with encouraging words and targets to help them understand what we are asking them to do, and a whistle and reward (usually a treat) when they get it right. With repetition and consistency, it doesn’t take long for an elephant to figure out exactly what we want; they are incredibly intelligent.

One very important part of training is developing a trusting relationship between keeper and elephant. We are working on this by slowly introducing Connie and Shaba to our staff. While in quarantine, they will have four consistent keepers: Ann, Scott, Jane, and me. When quarantine is over, each of the other keepers will be introduced to Connie and Shaba over a period of time. Connie, especially, needs time to get used to new people. We’ll use her behavior as a guide for how quickly or slowly we make changes to her environment. For now, we do training sessions throughout the day and focus on keeping both of them stimulated, healthy, and comfortable in their new situation.

Shaba was quick to catch on to our foot scrub routine. She presents all four feet through the foot hole of our training wall and allows us to scrub her feet, file her nails, and trim the pads of her feet. For the first couple of days Shaba was hesitant to be separated from Connie during individual training sessions or health checkups and reacted every time we opened or closed a door. Now she seems eager to come in for her individual training sessions and stands calmly, stationed with a keeper, as doors open and close around her. Shaba has learned to trust us, and her new environment, a great deal. Our goal is to get her even more comfortable with being touched so we can do a full physical exam, including letting our vets getting a little “up close and personal.” That will take some time, but she is showing so much potential.

Connie takes a little more time to warm up to new keepers. She has a history of being very choosy about whom she will cooperate with, but once she does, she has bonded closely. Thus, we are going at her pace. She may not have presented her foot the first day like Shaba did, but she is willing to do a little more every day, and we love that. Connie is very comfortable in the chute. She’s allowing the door to be closed and has been offering all four feet for scrubs. She has also started presenting a foot through the training wall for some toenail filing. We’re keeping her sessions short and sweet, and she’s rewarding us with some good work. Training is all about give and take.

When they’re not in a training session, Connie and Shaba get access to both their stall and yard. They have hanging feeders, pellet toys, and a huge dirt pile for digging and dusting. They both enjoy their toys. Shaba will balance a pellet ball on her tusks and gently shake it with her trunk to get the treats out. Connie will demolish any cardboard toy and devour the treats inside almost before you can blink!

Both of our newest elephants have been so much fun to get to know. We are looking forward to the day all of our guests can meet them and enjoy them as well. Until then, keep checking the blog! We’ll do our best to keep you up to date.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.