Elephants: They’re Here

On Saturday, April 25, the elephant staff at the San Diego Zoo received four large gifts for Elephant Odyssey from the elephant staff at the Wild Animal Park. The four Asian elephants, Ranchipur, Cookie, Mary, and Cha Cha, arrived at their new home around 3:30 in the afternoon. By 6 p.m. they were all unloaded and checking out their new home.

Everyone, including the elephants, did an outstanding job of loading, transporting, and unloading. All four elephants made the trip with no problems, except maybe being a bit tired from the day’s activities. With an escort of about 25 California Highway Patrol officers, keepers, vet staff, and support staff, the trip from Escondido was flawless.

When the elephants arrived at the Zoo, we had a crane, forklifts, and staff ready to unload the elephants as quickly as possible. It was decided that Cha Cha would be first. After unloading her crate from the truck and putting it into position, the door was opened. Her keepers from the Wild Animal Park were there to encourage her to come out. It took awhile for her to build up the confidence to leave her crate, which she did several times only to go back in when she got a bit uncertain. What finally did the trick was when her keeper, Brian, dropped his hat into the chute area and she picked it up to hand it back. This behavior was one that the two of them had been doing for awhile. Cha Cha came right out and handed the hat back to Brian, and our first elephant was welcomed to her new exhibit!

Next was Ranchipur. He was unloaded the same way as Cha Cha. He, too, was a bit nervous, but his keepers kept him calm with their reassurances. Then it was decided to let him see his girlfriend, Cha Cha, and he came right out. Guess he figured if it was good enough for her…. So we were two down and two to go!

Cookie was the next elephant to be unloaded. Like the other two, her crate was placed in position, door opened, and she came right out when her keepers called. The fun thing with her was that she had to follow a different path into the Elephant Care Center. There were several doors and transfer areas to pass through, which she did without hesitation and went right to her keepers. Just one more to go!

As we did with the others, Mary’s crate was position and secured, the door opened and basically before we could react, Mary was in the stall with Cookie. There were some chirps from Cookie and spontaneous applause from everyone who was there to witness this monumental event.

I was lucky enough to be chosen, along with my fellow elephant keeper Scott, to be there until midnight to make sure everyone was settling in to their new environment. The elephants’ keepers set all four of them up for the night and said their good byes. It had been a long day for everyone, and it could not have gone better. Five of the keepers from the Wild Animal Park are going to stay and work at Elephant Odyssey, which will make the transition all the more easier. I can say it was a pleasure to see elephants roaming the new facility at night, and all of them were comfortable. I could tell, because all were pigging out on the fresh browse and hay that had been given to them!

Now it is our turn to duplicate the wonderful job that the Park’s elephant keepers have done. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we will be following the same path and getting the Zoo’s elephants loaded up and moved to Elephant Odyssey. The trip will just not be as far, and we won’t need the Highway Patrol as escorts!

Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Packing and Unpacking Pachyderms

We’ve all been waiting for it: the elephants have been in training; keepers and trainers have been working long-long hours; construction workers have been, well, constructing. And as of Saturday, it was done!

That’s right, on Saturday I was able to watch as the historic event of four magnificent Asian elephants (Ranchipur, Cha Cha, Mary, and Cookie) moved from the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park to the Zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey exhibit. Once they were all in, the trumpeting and rumbling began as everyone (humans included) celebrated the first group of animals to call Elephant Odyssey home.

Thanks to a dedicated team that includes (but far from limited to) trainers, keepers, veterinary staff, curators, operations staff, security, an amazing team of crane operators, and truck drivers and an escort provided by our local law enforcement, the move went very smoothly.

First thing in the morning the elephants went through their morning training sessions at the Wild Animal Park, which include walking into the elephant-sized crates like they do every morning. This time was a little different, of course, because they were asked to stay in the crates and then loaded onto the flatbed trucks that were going to take them 35 miles south to the San Diego Zoo. Everyone did quite well, and thanks to a very dedicated and experienced staff, every detail was well thought out well before the day even started.

Upon arrival to the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, the crew went to work immediately to unload the crates and let the elephants get acquainted with their new home. Cha Cha and Ranchipur were first, followed by Mary and Cookie. The elephants occasionally trumpeted and rumbled their approval as they enjoyed their dinner of hay, tree branches, yams, apples, and carrots. The staff, though not able to break for dinner yet, congratulated each other as they watched the very first residents of Elephant Odyssey settle in.

It wasn’t until the sun was setting that the first wave of us started to make our way home. (Of course, the overnight staff had already been there a while and was just getting started with their shift.) As I walked through the Zoo, empty of guests due to the late hour, it dawned on me the historic significance of the day: First, the largest exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s history is one (large) step closer to opening. Second, we have also witnessed what can be accomplished with the dedication and planning of an amazing staff and the support of our members and community.

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


Looking for Elephant Odyssey Fun?

Can’t wait until May 23 for the grand opening? Want some Elephant Odyssey fun in your own home or office?

Hard to believe, but the Web team at the San Diego Zoo has outdone themselves yet again. Elephant Odyssey.com has an interactive map, videos, and information on the animals of the Pleistocene and the animals of today! Heck, there’s even a page where you can read up on the individual elephants that will live there.

Still not enough for you? Well, now there’s a fun computer game, too: Elephant Odyssey: The Game! It just launched this week and is already causing people to lose track of time (due to playing it and having fun) as they wander back in time through the Pleistocene epoch.

I have to admit, when I first started playing it I thought it looked rather basic in design. But then nearly an hour later (honestly, it only felt like 10 minutes), I couldn’t wait to see the next challenge and the next level.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I will offer you some things to remember while you play (these are things I found out the hard way). First, remember that your elephant needs to eat! At first I was too interested in the next animal encounter to pay attention to my “energy.” Bad idea, you have to eat to keep playing! Next hint: be careful of things that might fall on you or things that might fall away from under your feet. Also, saber-toothed cats are predators; they don’t use their mouth to talk to you like the other creatures, if you know what I mean. I could go on, but don’t want to give it all away.

Most important, this game falls into the age group “kids of all ages,” like most things at the Zoo. That means adults, too! There’s no doubt I’ll be playing this at home with the family. Might even have a little Elephant Odyssey: The Game throw-down-challenge to see who will reign supreme champion at the Elephant Odyssey Ambassador’s residence!

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


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?