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About Author: Robbie Clark

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13

Tusk Tales

Shaba recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

Shaba, who lives at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

We get a lot of questions about tusks here in the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo. Since we have both African and Asian elephants in our exhibit we care for quite a few individuals with tusks—five of our seven elephants have them. Caring for elephant tusks is pretty straightforward, but every once in a while they require additional maintenance. Many of you may have noticed that some of the elephants’ tusks have changed in size and shape over the last few years. Here’s why, but first a little background information—a kind of Tusk 101.

What are tusks? They are modified incisor teeth that grow separately from the molars inside of an elephant’s mouth. Tusks differ by not having the protective enamel coating that covers chewing teeth. And if they grow at all, an elephant only gets one set of tusks. In African elephants, both males and females can grow tusks. Among Asian elephants, only the males have tusks that grow externally and beyond the sulcus cavity (the lip area where the tusk is visibly seen). Female Asian elephants can grow small tusks called ‘tushes’, but they are rarely ever visible unless the mouth is open. Because tusks are teeth, there is a living pulp or root that sits in a hollow cavity at the base of the tusk.

Tusks are used for stripping bark off trees, fighting and playing with one another, and even for digging for water during times of drought. Not all elephants use their tusks the same way and some elephants use one tusk more than the other. Depending on available nutrition and the amount of wear and tear put on them, tusks can grow several inches a year.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to take radiographs of Shaba's tusks.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to radiograph Shaba’s tusks.

Basic tusk care includes cleaning the surface regularly and flushing out the sulcus cavity with water. To monitor the overall integrity of the tusks, we train each of the elephants to allow for radiograph imaging. The elephants are asked to hold a steady position and allow an x-ray plate to sit between the tusk and trunk so our veterinary staff can gather an image. These pictures give us the idea of where the pulp cavity lies inside the tooth. This is very important information; if an elephant injures or breaks its tusk near or at the pulp, the tusk is compromised. We have treated quite a few tusks over the years for various reasons, and this usually includes trimming them.

There are a few options we can utilize when a tusk needs to be trimmed. In the same way we train the elephants for radiographs, we also train them to allow us to trim their tusks. We generally use strong, thin steel wire to saw through the tusk, a relatively simple and safe way to remove part of the tooth in a scenario where the elephants allow us to do so. A normal trim can take anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. All the while, the elephant receives food rewards as part of our positive reinforcement training program.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Late last year Shaba, one of our resident female African elephants, broke about 18 inches off of her left tusk. We were unaware of how she broke it, but immediately radiographed the remaining portion and trimmed it without compromising the pulp cavity. Both of her tusks have been trimmed recently and are relatively short. This was the best option for Shaba to be able to keep her tusks—and they will continue to grow. In fact, several of our elephants have had successful tusk trims over the last few years. We use the removed tusk portions in educational programs at the Zoo.

If during your next visit you notice shortened tusks or tusks that are blunt at the end, you will now understand why. Trimming is all part of normal tusk care and is always done in the best interest of our elephants.

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!

7

Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made "cake."

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made “cake” stuffed with treats.

The beginning of every year is a time for celebration at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo—it’s when we mark all of our elephants’ “birthdays.” Because we do not know the exact days that any of the elephants were born on, it makes it easy for us to keep track of their ages by having everyone “roll over” at the same time.

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

This year we are celebrating a milestone with Shaba, our youngest elephant who just turned 35 years old! Shaba is a female African elephant that has lived at the San Diego Zoo for more than three years. For her birthday, a dedicated group of Zoo volunteers crafted a giant cake out of cardboard and tasty produce for Shaba to consume on her own, and it didn’t take long for her to break apart the cake to reach the goodies inside. A group of more than 200 volunteers, guests, and zoo staff sang ‘Happy Birthday’ while she enjoyed her special treat. Before too long, we let elephants Mary and Mila join Shaba at the buffet, and it was completely devoured by the end of the day!

The Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center was designed to care for aging elephants. All seven elephants in our herd are past reproductive age and will live out the rest of their lives with us at the Zoo. Mary, our most dominant female elephant, turned 51 this year, while Sumithi, the second-most dominant, turned 48. Here’s how old the rest of the “girls” are now: Tembo is 44, Mila is 42, and Devi just turned 38. Our bull elephant Ranchipur is now 49 years old, making him the fifth-oldest male elephant in North America.

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba's marvelous cake!

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba’s marvelous cake!

We want to especially thank the Zoo volunteers who took the time to create the cake for Shaba this year. It is always fun not only for the elephants, but for the keepers as well to enjoy these special moments. We appreciate all of the time and dedication you give the Zoo each and every day of each and every year.

Robbie Clark is keeper at the San Diego Zoo. REad his previous blog, Elephants Mila and Mary Meet.

46

Elephants Mila and Mary Meet

The San Diego Zoo's newest elephant: Mila.

The San Diego Zoo’s newest elephant: Mila.

Our newest elephant, Mila, is rounding out her first three months with us here at the San Diego Zoo, and she is doing extremely well, exceeding all of our expectations. A few weeks ago she cleared her mandatory quarantine period after receiving a clean bill of health by our veterinarians. As discussed in her previous blog entry, we were awaiting the results from her tuberculosis tests. Mila’s results came back negative, and at her overall health exam, she was in good health.

We have been working very hard to make Mila’s transition to her new home as smooth as possible. One of the most important aspects is that we ask Mila to participate in all of her daily care. Although she has had the chance to meet each member of our elephant care team, we have designated a core group of four keepers to help adjust her to her new life and routine. We use operant conditioning as the focus of our training program, relying heavily on positive reinforcement to reward our elephants. Mila was already conditioned to an array of training before her arrival; however, it has been our goal to get her used to how we work with all of the other elephants at the San Diego Zoo.

We have been working with Mila on having all of her feet hosed and scrubbed with soap, along with presenting her feet for “pedicures.” Other behaviors we have focused on include having her open her mouth for optimal viewing of her teeth, presenting an ear for future blood draws and allowing us to touch every part of her body. This training not only allows us to take care of Mila every day, but it also helps build her trust and confidence with her keepers and her new routine. She continues to amaze us with her ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations.

Mila explores one of the yards in the Zoo's Elephant Odyssey.

Mila explores one of the yards in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey.

As soon as we knew Mila was clear of quarantine, we immediately gave her the opportunity to explore outside of the special needs facility where she had spent all of her time so far at the Zoo. Every elephant who has moved to the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center has shown different reactions to moving throughout the facility. Mila, being the confident elephant that she is, had no problem walking through the large entryway and out into the main facility. She was accompanied by one of our keepers who has been working with her since her arrival to help make the exploration more comfortable for her. Mila had plenty of time to explore every inch of the stalls and scale area, becoming familiar with every new sight, smell, and sound.

Her normal care routine was soon transitioned from the special needs facility to the main stalls, which can be viewed by Zoo guests. Every day she was asked to participate in her daily foot care in one of the stalls, given a bath, and even asked to stand on the platform scale so we could record her weight. After a few days, we gave her access to one of the main exhibit yards. The yards are pre-set with plenty of tasty food items in puzzle feeders, along with several novel enrichment items to enhance her experience outside for the first time. Of course, we took every precaution to make sure Mila would be comfortable in the yard; however, she proved ready to explore with enthusiasm, and we couldn’t be happier with her progress into her new home.

Mila is now on exhibit at various times throughout the day for everyone to see and admire. She is not on a schedule, meaning every day is different for her. We try our best to give her as much time as possible out in one of the exhibit yards during the day to allow her to enjoy the sunshine and to get some exercise. She is also now staying in one of the exhibit yards overnight. During her first venture outside overnight, I and another keeper accompanied her to observe her behavior and make sure the experience went well. Her first night went without a hitch, and she continues to spend time in the exhibit overnight as we progress her through acclimating to life at the San Diego Zoo.

It is important to remember that prior to arriving here, Mila had spent the majority of her life without other elephants. It has been more than 30 years since she has interacted with another elephant, and giving her the ability to live in a social setting with other elephants was a key point in moving her here. Since her arrival, Mila has been able to communicate with the rest of the elephants as well as smell, hear, and even see them from a distance. Even though the rest of the female elephants have plenty of experience meeting new arrivals, we were unsure how Mila would react.

Mila flares her ears at Mary.

Mila flares her ears at Mary.

In late January, we gave Mila the first opportunity to meet another elephant with limited interaction. We decided that Mary was the best option, given she is a dominant elephant in the herd, is relatively calm, and has a good track record with meeting newcomers. The first interaction was done with each elephant in separate adjoining yards, using a mesh wall as the barrier between the two elephants. We were uncertain how Mila would react; being excited, nervous, scared, aggressive, or submissive were all possibilities we could have expected to observe. Mary was curious of the newbie, while Mila was surprised to find something as big as her on the other side of the wall! These initial meet-and-greets have the potential to go in many different directions; there is no textbook answer to say how new elephants will react to one another. We use observation and our knowledge of elephant behavior to gauge the success of the introductions.

On day two, we gave Mary and Mila the ability to have increased physical interactions using more exposed barriers between the two of them. Mila started off on the defensive, possibly unsure that Mary, too, is in fact an elephant. It was her initial reaction to let Mary know that Mila was just as big as Mary was. There was nudging and pushing at one another between the barrier, several trunk slaps, and even a temper tantrum or two on Mila’s end. Mila was even flaring her ears out to make herself look more impressive. For the most part, their encounters have been relatively calm and fascinating to watch as the two get to know each other more. It is our hope that Mary’s interactions will help shape Mila’s behavior when she meets other females within our herd. Mary is generally laid back but means business when she needs to.

Elephants are as individual in their personalities as humans are, so each new meeting will come with different behaviors. Only time will tell when we are ready for Mary and Mila to share the same space, but we are confident that their relationship will continue to grow stronger as they spend more time together. In the meantime, look for Mila the next time you visit the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey—she just may be out on exhibit. The other elephants appreciate your visit to the Zoo as well.

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

40

Welcome, Elephant Mila

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Happy New Year, everyone! It has been some time since you have heard from us at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, and it is for good reason. As always, we have been very busy caring for our herd of elephants; we hope many of you have had the opportunity to stop by recently and witness that care first hand. Our elephant team at the Zoo specializes in the care of aging elephants, and since the opening of our exhibit in 2009, we have had the privilege of extending that care to 11 individuals. Most recently, Elephant Odyssey has been home to six African and Asian elephants, with the opportunity to open our doors and provide sanctuary for other older elephants. We are very proud to say that on November 14, 2013, our herd grew a little bigger (by about 8,000 pounds or over 3,600 kilograms!) as we welcomed Mila, a 41-year-old female African elephant, into the family.

Mila’s story happens to be quite interesting. She traveled all the way from New Zealand, where she lived for more than 30 years. For the last four years, Mila lived at the Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary just south of Auckland, where a team of dedicated keepers and supporters worked hard to find her a new home. Unfortunately, it was never an option to keep Mila in New Zealand as there happens to be only one other elephant in the entire country, and the two of them had never met. It was the goal of the Franklin Zoo Charitable Trust to send her to a home that could provide Mila the opportunity to be social with other elephants. The San Diego Zoo happened to be the best option for Mila to live out the rest of her life. After a year of planning and preparations, Mila traveled inside a custom-made 15,000-pound (6,800 kilograms) steel crate by cargo plane more than 6,500 miles (10,400 kilometers) from Auckland to Los Angeles. She was then transported in a flatbed semi-truck with a police escort to the San Diego Zoo, where she unloaded into our Care Center with ease. More than 20 people, including Franklin Zoo and San Diego Zoo staff, accompanied Mila on her monumental journey half-way across the world.

For now, Mila is in the middle of her mandatory quarantine period, a six- to nine-week stay inside the Special Needs Facility of the Conrad Preby’s Elephant Care Center. Quarantine is a routine procedure where all new animal residents to the Zoo and Safari Park are cared for separately from the rest of the animal collection to make sure there is no present sickness, disease, or vector they can transmit to the existing animal population. Mila’s quarantine period is especially important because she must also be tested for tuberculosis, an infectious respiratory disease that can infect both humans and elephants.

Testing elephants for this disease is mandatory every year as regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the process is noninvasive. We simply train the elephants for what we call a trunk wash. The training is done through simple desensitization, having the elephants accept a saline solution poured into the nostrils of the trunk. The elephant is cued to raise its trunk up in the air for a minimum of 15 seconds before dropping it lower to blow the saline into a sterilized bag. Because this disease generally affects the lungs, and elephants breathe mostly through their trunk, the trunk wash ensures that if any bacteria is present, it should wash out with the saline. Mila was tested in New Zealand prior to her departure and was again tested three times over a three-day period immediately after she arrived. It usually takes a minimum of six weeks for the results to return to the Zoo, as the samples must be allowed to grow inside a sterile lab environment.

While we wait for the results, I am happy to report that Mila’s transition to her new home with us has gone incredibly well, and she has exceeded all of our expectations. Since Day One, Elephant Team members Ann, Scott, and I have been taking care of Mila. We have been working on creating an important trust-based relationships with her so we can prepare Mila for her shift into the rest of the Elephant Care Center and exhibit before she meets the other female elephants. Mila has proven to be very smart and adaptable, which only reinforces our decision to bring her here to the San Diego Zoo and give her the chance to meet other elephants. After living the last 35 years of her life without the company of other elephants, only time will tell how easy it will be for her to integrate into our existing herd.

For the remainder of her quarantine period, we will continue to acclimate her to our daily care routine, training, and staff. Mila will remain off public view for a few more weeks, but we are hopeful that you will give her a warm welcome when she makes her public debut in the future. In the meantime, make sure you stop by to see the other six elephants we have at the Zoo. They are always happy to see you!

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.