It is hard to believe that the opening of Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo is just around the corner. All of the elephant keepers are very excited about moving into our new digs! But before that happens, there are several things that need to be accomplished first. One of those is getting full physicals on all three of the elephants at the Zoo so we can have baseline data on them. This includes: eye and mouth exams, urine and blood tests, fecals, TB tests, and full-body exams. As keepers, it is our responsibility to train the elephants to participate in all of these behaviors so we don’t have to immobilize them.
One of the more difficult behaviors was training them to allow the keepers to take blood from a vein in their ears or leg. This is done inside their chute area where we can safely access the elephants from all sides. Like me, they aren’t that thrilled about needles, but after months of de-sensitizing them to the process and finding the right treat that they really like (to reward them for their cooperation) we have been able to collect blood on all three of them. My mom and dad learned when I was young that I would do most anything for a donut. The elephants are the same way. With Tembo, our African elephant female, it is just food in general! She is so food motivated, which makes her a dream to train. Devi, our youngest Asian elephant female, is a bit harder. Raisins seem to be one of her favorite foods, but that can change from day to day. Sumithi, our oldest Asian female, likes a variety of things, but a mixture of raisins and Cheerios seem to be one of the best treats for her.
Overall, the physical exams went very well. What ended up being the most difficult behavior was getting Sumithi to open up her mouth wide enough for the vets to see her bottom teeth. She has really big cheeks, and when she opens her mouth, the cheeks cover her bottom teeth. All of the treats we came up with were not enough to encourage her to open wide. It was time to bring out the heavy artillery! Sumithi loves peanut butter, so, using an old family recipe, I mixed chunky peanut butter, honey, and any type of breakfest cereal together and rolled the mixture into balls. This proved to be the right stuff! By rolling the treats on her tongue, she would open up wider than usual but not quite enough to see her teeth. We then decided to introduce a mirror on a telescopic handle, like the ones border patrol agents use to look under cars. Between this and the peanut butter balls, we were able to successfully see the bottom teeth and they looked great! Now every time I walk by with peanut butter balls she opens wide before I even ask her!
Now that we have finished all of their physicals, we have to continue training them to go inside their crates for the big day when they move from the Zoo’s Elephant Mesa to Elephant Odyssey. As of now, I can report that all three are ready to go! We are just waiting for the word.
Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.
Read previous posts Ron has written about the Zoo’s elephants: Zoo Elephants: Meet Tembo, Zoo Elephants: Meet Devi, and Zoo Elephants: Meet Smitty.