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.


Baby Elephant

Big sister, little brother, and Mom

Big sister, little brother, and Mom

Okay, I know I have said it before, but I have to say it again—I love this job! Not only do I get to tell everyone about the coolest new exhibit coming to the San Diego Zoo, but I also get to tell everyone about our newest baby! Of course, to do that I need to know as much as possible about the little guy and that means going to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park!

That’s right, our male baby African elephant was born on March 13 at 3:15 in the morning. He is doing very well, and yes, he’s terribly cute. You can see him with mom Umngani and older sister Khosi.

While visiting, I was able to talk to some of the staff to find out how the little guy is doing. I found out that there is more going on than meets the eye. Sure, when we go to the Wild Animal Park to visit them, we see a very cute baby, a proud older sister, and a very gentle mother. You may even notice a small shelter for humans set up over a table with clipboard, watches, and paperwork. Amazingly enough, for a couple of weeks prior to the birth, the dedicated staff had been watching over the expectant mother 24 hours a day. Now, after the birth, 24-hour watches will continue for at least another 5 weeks!

The observations conducted by the animal care staff collect information on frequency of nursing, interaction with others, developmental behavior, and so much more. Also pertinent to their documentation is what they call “significant first occurrences.” These include the first time he tried to stand, the first time he actually did stand, the first time he tried to nurse, the first time he actually did nurse, and so on. It becomes an astoundingly massive pool of information that is added to similar documentation collected from previous births. All of those facts and figures are then compared with data that have been collected on baby elephants born in Africa to gauge the growth trajectories and health of the youngsters.

Whew! And to think you thought he was just a cute baby!

Now that you know about some of the “behind the scenes” work of our devoted staff of keepers and researchers, here are some fun facts about our new baby boy:

*He was born March 13, at 3:15 a.m. By the way, did you know that March 13 happens to be National Elephant Day in Thailand? It is! AND another fun fact, on March 13 of 1897, San Diego State University was founded!
*His birth weight was103 kilograms (about 226 pounds).
*He nurses regularly, and if you add up the total time of nursing that occurs in 24 hours it would be 2 hours!
*He continues to do very well, and he and the whole herd can already be seen out on exhibit in the main yard, so come by the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and bring your camera!

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

Read Rick’s previous blog, Elephants: A Zoo Family.

View more photos of the baby elephant

Watch video of the baby’s first day


Elephants: A Zoo Family

Asian elephant Sumithi, at left, and African elephant Tembo

Asian elephant Sumithi, at left, and African elephant Tembo

I have to admit, when I first started working at the San Diego Zoo, I often wondered why there was a single African elephant living with two Asian elephants. I really couldn’t say there was anything wrong with it, so much as it seemed to go against my innate human desire to have like with like. I suppose it goes back to my childhood and watching television. You might remember the song from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other…”

I found out that Tembo, the San Diego Zoo’s 38-year-old female African elephant, came to the Zoo when she was about 12. Before that, Tembo was a movie and television star in Hollywood. That probably explains why she is such a ham when she sees someone with a camera on a tripod!

From front to back: Devi, Sumithi, and Tembo

From front to back: Devi, Sumithi, and Tembo

According to her keepers, she is still quite a character, having lived with her two “roommates,” Devi and Sumithi, for nearly 27 years. She is the one known for getting the other girls excited with her trumpeting and low rumbles. Even with their obvious differences, there is no doubt that Tembo fits in with the Asian elephants quite well. A few days ago, I noticed the three elephants all standing around, rump to rump to rump. When I asked the keepers about the positioning the girls had put themselves into, I was told that this is something they have done for years. This is a relaxed social gathering that has been seen in elephants in the wild, too. Positive social interaction, such as gentle bumping or touching, helps to build and maintain a cohesive herd.

For the upcoming opening of the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, Tembo, Devi, and Sumithi will be introduced to the four Asian elephants that will be coming from the Wild Animal Park. Although Tembo is the only African elephant, the San Diego Zoo recognizes that she is comfortable and secure with her current family herd of Asian elephants. Keeping that in mind, the staff is working hard to make the best decisions for her. As with any animal introduction, careful thought and consideration will go into every detail. The veterinary and animal care teams have thoroughly evaluated possible risks associated with forming a new herd at Elephant Odyssey. Based on these evaluations, plans have been made that offer the least amount of risk for the introduction of the Zoo and Park herds and that will result in everyone having the best living conditions for their needs. By introducing Tembo, Devi, and Sumithi together to a new home and new elephants, we expect the transition will be easier for all of them. They will find something familiar (each other) in a new and inviting place. Of course, we will keep a close eye on the Zoo’s elephants and the Park’s herd and will make changes as the relationship develops between them.

With that, I think I’ll head up to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park this week and get to know the newest herd member, our baby African elephant! Of course I’ll fill you all in on what I find out about the little (big) guy!

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

Read his previous post, Seriously, This Is What I Do.

Read previous posts about the Zoo’s elephants: Zoo Elephants: Meet Tembo, Zoo Elephants: Meet Devi, and Zoo Elephants: Meet Smitty.


Seriously, This Is What I Do

As I was heading home from work the other day, it occurred to me that my average day is anything but average. Maybe that’s why I love this job so much! (Read Rick’s previous blog, Where’s that Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?)

During a meeting today at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, I walked in elephant footprints as I traversed the Asian elephant exhibit. Navigating the terrain, mud and grass weren’t the only natural obstacles, if you know what I mean. There is a certain primordial feel one gets when walking in the footsteps of such magnificent animals.

I have watched the elephants many times from the public observation areas before. However, I really got a better appreciation for how massive these animals are once I was on their level. Not only are the impressions in the soft soil something to admire, but I was also able to get a better idea for just how big their enrichment and log toys really are. Everything is on such a grand scale with elephants; you start to feel a little minuscule and almost insignificant in comparison.

My next meeting for the day was scheduled in Albert’s Restaurant at the San Diego Zoo. How many people can say they walk by flamingos on their way to a meeting? Better yet, how many people get to walk through a beautiful rain forest and past two young gorillas playing tag? For those of you not familiar with Albert’s, it is just past the Gorilla Tropics habitat, nestled in a very green and lush landscaped area. It is truly a perfect little get away of a restaurant that just so happens to be in the middle of the San Diego Zoo! (When you go there, be sure to read how Albert’s got its name.)

As I finished my day, I stopped by the Zoo’s elephant exhibit (pictured above) to watch Devi, Tembo, and Sumithi play with their enrichment items. I consider it another meeting with coworkers! Honestly, I can say this is an important part of my job, checking up on how the animals and keepers are doing. I also took a moment to stop by the anteater exhibit to see if I could catch a glimpse of the baby riding around on mom’s back. If you haven’t seen this, you really ought to head over there to check it out.

All in all, it was a very productive day as I set up future talks and presentations about Elephant Odyssey and stopped to look in on some of the animals. I think the next presentation will be Saturday evening for the Spring Member Appreciation Dinner (at Albert’s, of course!), so if you are there, please be sure you say “Hello.”

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


Where’s that Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?

In my very first post about being the Elephant Odyssey Ambassador, do you remember when I said I’d be traveling around the country? Well, that’s what I did! (Read Rick’s previous post, What is an Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?) I packed my trunk and headed for New York and Washington D.C. to start spreading the news. However, there was no way I could do this alone. I was fortunate enough to have a small team with me. I affectionately called our little group “the herd” as we roamed the amazing city of New York heading to and from our appointments. Our goal was to share the news of Elephant Odyssey with as many travel editors and writers as possible in just a few days. Personally, I think we achieved our goal quite well in the few days we were there.

Throughout my travels I was constantly amazed by the warmth and kindness of New Yorkers. Having been a “West Coast” guy all my life, I had heard plenty of stories about the “New York attitude.” Apparently that is just a myth! Everywhere I went I was greeted with warmth and hospitality. People were even more excited when they found out I was with the San Diego Zoo. Everyone wanted to know what brought me all the way to New York. (Of course, I told them all about the many wonderful things to expect with Elephant Odyssey.) I was also impressed with how many people had their own great stories. Some people told me about their memories from their childhood experiences visiting the San Diego Zoo, while others told me about visiting the San Diego Zoo just a summer or two ago.

Then it was on to Washington, D.C., where we met with more editors and writers. Again, I was amazed at the hospitality of everyone we met. From the taxi drivers to the hotel staff and everyone else, we were warmly welcomed to the nation’s capitol. However, the weather was less than warm. For instance, I had a wake-up call one morning where the recording gave the time and current temperature. Bad idea: it was 18 degrees outside! Not really a big motivator to get out of a nice warm bed when you know it is below freezing! Nonetheless, it was a great trip and a wonderful opportunity to tell people about Elephant Odyssey and all that is happening back in sunny San Diego.

I must admit we were very busy every day as we went from one meeting to another. So busy, in fact, that I just had enough time to get a glimpse of some of the great scenery of New York and Washington, D.C. I am looking forward to the day that I can take a vacation and head back to those cities as a tourist.

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


What Is an Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?

Good question, and pretty easy for me to answer because that’s me, Rick Schwartz! I have been a keeper at the San Diego Zoo for over eight years, working with a wide variety of animals and people. Recently I was given the opportunity to shift my focus from keeper work to ambassador work for the Zoo. As Elephant Odyssey’s ambassador, I get to travel around San Diego and the country as a representative of the Zoo. My job is to share with everyone anything and everything that is Elephant Odyssey.

That said, I need to tell you that this year the San Diego Zoo is going to open the largest exhibit area in its history: Elephant Odyssey. No pun intended, but this area is huge, and the animal care sections are going to be like nothing else out there! Of course, the Zoo is known for the exceptional care it provides to all of its animals, and Elephant Odyssey will set the bar even higher. As for guests visiting Elephant Odyssey, you will be immersed in a bioclimatic zone that will bring you into the environment AND take you back in time, too. Okay, okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. It’s all so exciting and there’s so much to share, I just can’t wait to tell everyone!

You’re probably thinking, “Do we need an ambassador? Everyone already knows about the San Diego Zoo.” As true as that may be, there are a lot of interesting facts that people may not know. For instance, did you know that elephants under our care range in age from 1 to 54 years old? Our youngest African elephant at the Wild Animal Park, Kamile, is a vibrant 1 year old and our oldest Asian elephant, Cookie, is a mature 54 years old. Did you know that the Zoo’s conservation efforts span the globe? We are conducting habitat studies in Africa, releasing California condors to the wild in North America, studying koalas in Australia, and so much more! Check out our Web’s new conservation section.

There is so much information to share with everyone about the Zoo, Wild Animal Park, and San Diego Zoo Conservation Research! Honestly, my enthusiasm for getting out there and talking to people tends to get the better of me.

Let’s face it: I’ve got a big job to do, one of elephantine proportions! The Zoo has a lot going on all the time, and this year will be more eventful than ever. Between the opening of Elephant Odyssey and the many conservation projects we’ll be highlighting, I am going to be a very busy ambassador, working hard to get the word out to everyone.

For now, as I trade out my zookeeper tools for a laptop computer, I ask that you keep checking our Web site. You’ll find new blogs popping up here and there and new videos coming online; a whole page dedicated to Elephant Odyssey should be debuting this spring.

Rick Schwartz is Elephant Odyssey ambassador for the San Diego Zoo.


Farewell to Sunita

Sadly, 60-year-old Sunita, the oldest elephant at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, passed away on Wednesday, February 25, 2009. She had lived at the Wild Animal Park since 1974 and had been receiving specialized care because of her advanced age. She will be much missed.

Nita was one of the smartest, most personable elephants around. Everyone loved her. And if for some reason you didn’t, she found a way to win you over. She did all sorts of things to get your attention: give you gifts of dirt or hay, make sounds like she swallowed a lion, or pick up her foot like she was injured. If you ignored all of that, you might receive a blast of water expertly aimed to soak you. But her antics were always in good fun.

One of our favorite Nita quirks was her love of putting objects in her tusk sockets to look like she had longer tusks. We joked that she wanted to be an African elephant. We were always delighted when she removed the “tusk” and handed it to us as a gift. Nita loved being with people, and she regularly preferred our company to food.

At the Wild Animal Park, she charmed our guests in demonstrations and was always willing to show off for people. In her early days here, she played tug-of-war with thousands of wide-eyed school kids. She always won.

If Nita found an object that one of the staff wanted to retrieve from the yard, she knew she could bargain with us for an exchange. She also understood that if she broke it into several pieces, she had more to bargain with and could get several apples instead of just one.

In the past year, we knew that age was finally catching up with Nita. She slowed down a bit, and we even started chopping up her hay so she could chew it better. However, it became evident in the past week that she was really sick. We gave her everything that we could think of: special treats, extra love, attention, and care. But despite our efforts, we had to accept that the best thing for Nita was to let her go and humanely euthanize her.

Nita was an elephant ambassador for her species. She brightened all our lives and those of anyone else fortunate enough to meet her. We all feel lucky to have known her.

The Wild Animal Park Asian Elephant Team


Elephant Calves Measure Up

Umngani and her daugher, Khosi

Umngani and her daugher, Khosi

A common activity with young children is to make handprints with finger paint for proud parents to display on their refrigerators. These are often kept for years to reminisce about the growth of their children. We decided that this would be a useful exercise to do with our African elephant calves at the Wild Animal Park. While we didn’t hang these prints on the refrigerator, we did use the print measurements to compare their growth with the growth of wild African elephant calves.

In the wild, the age of young elephants (less than 15 years old) can be determined by the size of the footprint they leave behind in the dirt. The front-to-back length of the footprint (the print is shaped like a tear drop) is related to height, and both footprint length and height are related to age. It has been very useful to researchers to be able to determine age of calves in the wild in this way because it does not require any unnatural disturbance. Researchers can simply watch where a calf leaves a footprint, and when the animals have moved on, measure the print left behind in the dirt.

We wanted to compare the footprints of our calves with elephant footprints found in the wild, so we could see how growth in zoos compares with wild growth. All of our elephants are trained to walk onto a scale once a week and stand still while weights are recorded. We wet the scale before each calf entered and we then called them to walk across dry concrete with wet feet, leaving clear footprints behind after their weigh in. We were able to measure these after each calf was released back into the yard for afternoon play.

As it turns out, our calves are growing at the same rate as calves in the wild. For example, two-year-old calves in the wild have footprints that fall between 8.5 and 9.3 inches (21.8 and 23.7 centimeters). Our two-year-old calves, Impunga and Kamile, had footprints that were 9.4 and 9 inches (24 and 23 centimeters), thus falling within or close to the expected range. Both Musi and Khosi followed this same pattern. Our calves are growing very steadily; in November, Kamile weighed 1,030 pounds (467 kilograms), Punga 1,338 pounds (607 kilograms), Khosi 1,561 pounds (708 kilograms), and Musi a whopping 3,384 pounds (1535 kilograms)! Although our young males are getting bigger, they will remain with their family at the Wild Animal Park for the coming years. Because animals can’t be weighed in the wild, we will be comparing the growth in weight with the footprint size as they get older. However, so far it looks like our calves are growing bigger and heavier by the day!

The new elephant exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, Elephant Odyssey, is still on schedule to open in early summer of this year. None of the African elephants at the Wild Animal Park will be relocating, but the Park’s Asian elephants will find a new, large and comfortable home in Elephant Odyssey.

Emily Rothwell is a Heller Fellow Research Associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division. Read her previous elephant blog, Sound the Alarm!