Bones, Statues, and Trees

I know it has been a while since I have corresponded here on the blog. However, it is nothing to worry about, my lack of writing time is all for a good reason! (Read Rick’s previous blog, Statue Tour: Educating Kids, Wowing Adults.) Since returning from the Statue Tour a few weeks ago, I have been very busy doing interviews on radio, television, and with print media. There was even a day where I gave a presentation during a luncheon and did media interviews before and after at a different location within the Zoo. Whew, that was a eventful day! Yesterday was no different, as I was on local television and national radio all within a couple of hours and all before it was 10:30 a.m.!

I was fortunate enough to catch up with the statues, which we drove across the country, shortly after we arrived in San Diego. It was great to see how perfectly they fit into the Mammoth Plaza of Elephant Odyssey (see photo above).

With all of those done, I wanted to quickly bring you up to speed on how things are going at Elephant Odyssey. Then just a few days ago, I was out on the construction site again for some interviews about Elephant Odyssey, and I was so amazed at how much had been accomplished by the construction crews. In just a little over a week’s time the Fossil Portal had dirt walls with bones exposed, and trees and plants were being put into place. Further down the trail, the elephants’ pool was full and the on-site water purification facility was being put through its paces. I was really taken with the size and structure of the “utilitrees” that have been built right there on site. These man-made trees are 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall and will offer a wide variety of enrichment opportunities for the elephants, plus cool mist in the summer and heaters in the winter.

I am so impressed with how everything is really taking shape. I feel so lucky to have seen it all come together over the past few months. And to think we still have a little over a month until we open. I can’t wait!

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.


Elephants on the Move: Preparation

It is an exciting time to be a part of the San Diego Zoo! Whether you are an employee, a Zoo member, or a guest, everyone is talking about the future opening of Elephant Odyssey, the Zoo’s newest exhibit. With just under two months before the grand opening, much is being done to prepare and train the elephants for their relocation.

Many people ask, “Why can’t we simply walk the elephants to their new exhibit?”

A great question! It does seem like it would be a lot easier to move the elephants by walking them from Elephant Mesa to the new exhibit space in Elephant Odyssey; however, one can encounter several potential problems. Health and safety are our biggest concerns when moving animals. We want to make sure that the animal being moved is in the safest situation as well as those who are working around her and those animals in nearby exhibits. All animals, domesticated, in zoos, or wild, react differently to unexpected situations, which could lead to a life-threatening injury. The only way to guarantee the safest possible scenario with all people and animals involved is in a controlled environment. In this case, our best controlled environment is with the use of a crate. When the elephants are crated, they are restricted from causing significant injuries to themselves or others.

Currently, the three elephants at the Zoo (Tembo, Sumithi, and Devi) have nearly completed their crate training. When visiting the elephants at the Zoo, you cannot miss the giant metal crate on exhibit. For the past year, all three elephants have been working with their keepers to become comfortable with entering into this crate for transportation. The idea of training an animal to walk into a crate sounds like an easy task at first, but in all actuality, it can be quite a challenge. Most animals do not like the idea of entering into an unfamiliar object, especially one which comes to a dead end. The fear of being trapped can overwhelm even the most domestic of pets, let alone a 9,000-pound elephant. Keepers have been working diligently with the elephants by taking one step at a time to gain the animals’ trust, ensure their success, and more importantly, their safety.

Training began the moment the “girls” saw the crate for the first time on exhibit. With both doors open on opposite ends of the crate, a sense of curiosity was observed on behalf of the three soon-to-be travelers when they explored the outer framework with their trunks. As a result of the keepers placing food items on and around the crate, the elephants quickly lost any possible apprehension of walking through.

The crates we are using have an outer solid door and an inner set of slide bars on both ends. When training the girls to enter into the crate with a dead end, we only use the slide bars, which allow for the elephant to see out and to receive consistent positive food reinforcement. Keepers use food favorites from the girls’ normal daily diet while training, such as raisins, watermelon, and alfalfa hay. Tembo, our most food-motivated elephant, to no one’s surprise appeared to be the most eager to work in the crate. In fact, at times, keepers needed to slow her down because she would anticipate and perform the actions before being asked the behavior.

Training both learned and unlearned behaviors is a never-ending task among all keepers. As a result, crate training will continue with the elephants up until the day they are transported into their new home. On that day, the girls will each be placed in their own crate just as they have experienced for the past several months during training. Once secured in the crate, the slide bars will be placed on the opposite end of the crate, and both outer solid doors can be easily shut, completely enclosing the animal with minimal impact and maximum safety. Within moments after being in the crate, we expect the elephants to arrive and calmly be released into their new exhibit at Elephant Odyssey!

The grand opening is scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, but there is much more that will take place between now and then, including the initial introduction of the Asian elephants from the Wild Animal Park with our existing group at the Zoo. We are all anxiously awaiting this moment and look forward to sharing those experiences with you!

Mike Langridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


The Right Stuff



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.


Statue Tour: Educating Kids, Wowing Adults

Wednesday, April 8, we found ourselves in the middle of a school yard surrounded by kids and adults, all asking questions and looking at the truckload of statues with wonderment. (Read Rick’s previous post, Statue Tour: Swinging through the Southwest.) Can you imagine being in your classroom and seeing a mammoth family and other Pleistocene animals drive up and park right next to your playground? I don’t know about you, but that definitely would have left an impression on me!

We were able to talk directly to over 80 elementary school students yesterday (and all the teachers and administrators that were there) about extinction and conservation. What a great opportunity! I absolutely love the enthusiasm children bring to this discussion, and many of these kids were very knowledgeable about fossils and what extinction means. From information about current species that are alive today to facts about our truckload of ancient animals, these kids were happy to learn more. My only regret is that we can’t go to every school in the nation.

One of my favorite things to do when working with kids is to ask them what they think and then just step back and listen to their ideas and knowledge. I asked this group, “Why do you think the San Diego Zoo is bringing a truckload of extinct animals to the Zoo all the way from Wisconsin?”

Their responses were perfect! One boy answered, “Because you guys want to teach us about extinction and animals.” And another girl replied, “The Zoo is trying to save animals and wants to show people the animals that are not here anymore.” Of course there we plenty of other great answers, but I can’t list them all.

After two hours of talking to the kids (8 groups every 15 minutes), I was exhausted but smiling from ear to ear. Matching each group’s energy and enthusiasm with my passion was very satisfying and personally rewarding for me.

Now I’m back in San Diego. In fact, by the time you read this I am sure the statues will be at the Zoo and probably being prepped for getting settled into their permanent home. This wraps up one of the many adventures I am having as Elephant Odyssey Ambassador!

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Visit the Elephant Odyssey Web site for video of the statue tour.


Statue Tour: Swinging through the Southwest

Rick in St. Louis, Missouri

Rick in St. Louis, Missouri

Yesterday we met up with the statues in Las Vegas and had a great time talking to the news crew VERY early in the morning. We then enjoyed the company of many Las Vegas locals as they came to visit us and take pictures of the statues. We even had a few people who were visiting Las Vegas from out of town that saw the early morning news coverage and came down to see the statues! (Read Rick’s previous post, Statue Tour: On the Move!)

One thing very noticeable for me was the contrast of temperatures. You may notice snow on one of the videos that shows the loading of the statues on the Elephant Odyssey Web site. You may remember from my previous post about our first stop in Milwaukee and how it was much cooler than I was accustomed to. Here’s the contrast: I got sun burned in Las Vegas. Just a couple of days after shivering in the cooler climates of Milwaukee and St Louis, I found myself breaking a sweat in Las Vegas!

Greeting the folks in Phoenix, Arizona

Greeting folks in Phoenix, Arizona

Today in Phoenix I found myself up and ready for more news interviews long before the sun came up. In fact, while driving to the first news studio, we watched the moon set in the west; odd, I know, but very beautiful nonetheless. We finished up the first set of interviews at one TV station and were off to the next one before the sun was all the way up!

We ended the day in Phoenix after meeting and talking to many people about Elephant Odyssey and the statues that were traveling through town. Honestly, I have to say I am having a good time meeting everyone as we travel across the country.

Next stop: Los Angeles!

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.


Statue Tour: On The Move!

Columbian mammoth statue

Columbian mammoth statue

We have met lots of people on our statue tour, many of them wondering what a guy from the San Diego Zoo is doing in their area (see previous blog Statue Tour: First Stop, Milwaukee!). When I explain that we are driving across country to deliver mammoth statues to the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey exhibit, they all want to know more (good thing I am able to answer all of their questions).

We did not have any major stops since Milwaukee because the truck had to take alternate routes due to the mammoth height of the load—and that’s no pun, that’s a fact! Apparently, after getting true measurements of the height of the tallest mammoth on the trailer, they had to find routes that the truck, trailer, and mammoth load could fit under! We were able to drive by, but not through, Chicago and St. Louis.

Giant sloth and mammoth statues

Giant sloth and mammoth statues

Having had the opportunity to spend some time with the statues as we tour across America, I have noticed something: the details; more specifically, the attention to detail that the artist has put into these amazing statues.

Looking in the eyes of the mammoth, the realism is remarkable. The features in the skin, from the subtle lines in the trunk to the delicate areas near the eyes, all look so real. Honestly, you half expect them to start moving!

Teratorn statue

Teratorn statue

The details in the two Pleistocene epoch birds are no less amazing than the others. You quickly forget you are viewing sculpted concrete when looking at the features of their beaks. Equally impressive is the appearance of overlaying feathers along the bodies of both the teratorn and the Daggett’s eagle.

A question that has come up a few times is, “Are they life size?” And the answer is yes, at least as best as we humans of today can scientifically estimate. The artist and research staff at the San Diego Zoo examined data previously gathered by paleontologists. The statues were created with this information and knowledge of what current animals look like today.

Of course another good question I get is, “What are they made of?” Without going into too much detail, they are made of steel frames and wire with fiberglass and concrete making the shape of each animal. Then more concrete was used to make the outer “skin” or “feathers,” followed with a special acrylic paint for the finishing touch!

I’ll post more details from the road if I think of any that I haven’t mentioned yet.

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

View video of the tour and follow along on the route!


Statue Tour: First Stop, Milwaukee!

Greetings from the “Statue Tour: A Mammoth Road Trip!” We started off Thursday morning (April 2) in Milwaukee at 7:30 a.m. Though it was rather cold for this San Diegan, the good people of Milwaukee told me it was a pretty nice morning by their standards. To that I say, “Brrrrrr!!!”

Regardless of the morning hours and the cooler (cold) temperatures, we had several hundred people stop by and hang out with us to learn more about the statues and Elephant Odyssey. Though scheduled to be there between 8 and 10 in the morning, we had people showing up a little after 7:30 and we ended up staying closer to 10:30 because of public interest. I was even interviewed by the local CBS station, so if anyone catches that on the Milwaukee news, let me know!

As you can see by some of the pictures, we were lucky to avoid any snow or rain that was predicted for the morning. That said, who knows what weather we may get as we head to Chicago.

It has also been quite fun to follow the truck and see the reactions people have as they see the flat-bed trailer loaded with animals from the Pleistocene! One guy walking down the street snapped his head around so fast I thought he may have hurt himself. Other people smile and point, and passengers in cars are taking pictures with their cell phone cameras.

I’ll write more and hopefully include a few more pictures!

Oh, and don’t forget, the new Elephant Odyssey Web site is up and running.

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Read Rick’s previous post, Where’s My Trunk?


Where’s My Trunk?

As I have mentioned before, my job involves travel and that means it is time to pack my trunk yet again.

I am headed out to Milwaukee to accompany our life-size statues on their journey back to San Diego. You may remember from my previous post, Putting the “Odyssey” in Elephant Odyssey, that there will be life-size statues of some of the animals from the Pleistocene residing at Elephant Odyssey. Well, they are not being made on site, and thus they need to be trucked across the nation!

You might be wondering why I am going out to the Midwest to drive all the way back to San Diego with them. Though I am handy with a map, I’m no truck driver! I am, however, the guy who can explain to all the folks we meet along the way why a family of mammoths, a ground sloth, and other statues are headed to the San Diego Zoo. We plan on making some stops along the way as we pass through cities like Chicago and St. Louis. As we get closer to home, we’ll be making stops in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles too, so make sure you look for us if you’re in the area.

I will have my laptop with me, so I will try to post information and maybe some pictures from the road as we go. Keep in mind, the new Elephant Odyssey Web page goes live at the end of the day on April 1. There should be updates and links available there, possibly as soon as April 2, as we make our way across America to San Diego.

The new Elephant Odyssey web page address is: www.elephantodyssey.com

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.


Putting the “Odyssey” in Elephant Odyssey

Columbian mammoth

Columbian mammoth

Imagine walking through Southern California 12,000 years ago. Believe it or not, the surrounding plants and landscape wouldn’t be much different than the natural surroundings you see today. However, the diversity of animals would rival that of modern-day African savannas. It might be difficult to visualize a family of Columbian mammoths traversing across the local terrain or a teratorn (relative of the modern-day condor) gliding along the air currents of the foothills with its 12-foot wingspan.

Giant ground sloth

Giant ground sloth

Elephant Odyssey is named so because it will literally be an odyssey through time as you enjoy the bioclimatic zone of Southern California, 12,000 year ago. During the Pleistocene epoch, North America was alive with a vast wealth of animals that is unmatched on this continent today. Herbivores like the large-headed llama, dwarf pronghorn, ground sloth, and Columbian mammoth, once roamed with many other grazers and browsers of the time. Saber-toothed cats and American lions were both carnivores that dominated their territories as they raised their young and hunted their prey. Daggett’s eagles and Merriam’s teratorns were giant birds that soared, scavenged, and hunted throughout the area.

Elephant Odyssey brings you back to this time of mammoths by exploring what has been discovered through fossil finds across Southern California. You will first experience an active mock tar pit and fossil dig that will be staffed with interpretive volunteers. This will bring forward the concept of what once lived here and will also establish their extinction and what may have happened to these animals.

As you move from the fossils toward the animals of today, you will get to come into contact with life-size replicas of some of the species that lived during the Pleistocene. Life-size statues of a mammoth family, a ground sloth, and many more will be situated to allow your natural line of sight to pick up the living counterpart in the distance, visually bridging time.

Merriam's teratorn

Merriam's teratorn

Wandering through Elephant Odyssey, you will experience today’s living counterparts with the animals of 12,000 years ago. The diversity of species will span the globe and also bring to the forefront what is happening to these animals in their current environments. Some may be in danger of going the way of their Pleistocene ancestors while others might have stable populations at this time. Still others, like the California condor, may even have been on the brink of extinction recently but are making a comeback.

Of course, there are other elements and aspects to Elephant Odyssey, but hopefully this will give you an idea of what to expect as we start our odyssey on May 23.

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Read Rick’s previous blog, Elephant Odyssey Opens In Two Months.


Elephant Odyssey Opens In Two Months

As difficult as that may be to believe, it’s true! Opening day for the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey is scheduled for May 23, just two short months away! The construction crews have been working some long days and are doing a wonderful job. Taking into consideration that ground breaking was officially October of 2007, they sure have come a long way.

You may be asking, “Why is the opening of this new area so exciting?” Well, to begin with, Elephant Odyssey is the largest multispecies exhibit ever built in the 92-year history of the San Diego Zoo. The entire Elephant Odyssey experience covers over 7.5 acres, (all within the 100 acres of the Zoo). The 2.5 acre elephant exhibit and the half-acre Elephant Care Center creates a living area 6 times the size of the current elephant exhibit, with an amazing use of space that includes built-in enrichment, water features, and so much more.

Keep in mind that Elephant Odyssey will be home to a wide variety of animals. As I mentioned above, this is a multispecies exhibit. From insects and reptiles to birds and mammals, there will be 12 animal exhibits with over 30 species of animals at Elephant Odyssey.

Here’s an exclusive peek (okay, not really exclusive, but it sounds good) at some of the species you will encounter while enjoying the Elephant Odyssey experience. You will have the opportunity to see giant water bugs, pond turtles, secretary birds, California condors, guanacos, tapirs, capybaras, African lions, jaguars, and of course, elephants!

Looking over that list of animals you might notice that many are not from the same region. Those of you with a discerning eye may even notice that some are from different continents. Thus you may now be asking, “How exactly does this all tie in to the name Elephant Odyssey?”

Good question! I’ll answer that in the next blog post later this week, so keep an eye out for my update! Here’s a hint for you: I open up some of my presentations by saying: “Discover Southern California’s past through the animals of today.”

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Read Rick’s previous post, Baby Elephant.