asian elephant


Elephant Mila Applies Her Social Skills

Mila, right, and Mary share a snack of acacia browse.

Mila, right, and Mary share a snack of acacia browse.

Some of you may be wondering how our newest elephant, Mila, is fitting into the family here at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Mila had not seen another elephant in approximately 35 years before she came to the Zoo in November 2013 (see post Welcome, Elephant Mila). We were excited to let her meet our herd of five female elephants but knew that we needed to take it slow in order to give Mila the best chance of fitting in. So, after her quarantine period ended in January 2014, we began the introduction process.

We started by letting Mila meet Mary, a 50-year-old Asian elephant and our most dominant female (see post Elephants Mila and Mary Meet). After a little pushing and shoving, which is how elephants establish dominance, Mila and Mary became fast friends and are often seen spending time together in the yard.

Our next step was adding Shaba, a 34-year-old African elephant, to the mix. When Mila met Shaba, she had a nervous few days trying to figure out this elephant who looked like her but had longer tusks! She used all the social skills she had learned from meeting Mary, and they now get along. We then gave Mila some time to bond with Mary and Shaba before introducing her to more of the girls.

Once Mary, Mila, and Shaba were able to be together 24 hours a day, we let Mila meet Sumithi, a 47-year-old Asian elephant, and then Devi, a 37-year-old Asian elephant. Once again, our smart girl Mila applied her new social skills and ability to navigate the exhibit and be “under the radar,” and the introductions went great—Mila had now met four of our five female elephants!

Tembo, a 42-year-old African elephant, was the last girl Mila needed to be introduced to; however, we wanted to give Mila some time to bond and adjust to her new herd before she met Tembo, who is usually a little more animated and intimidating than the other elephants. After a few weeks of spending her days with Mary, Shaba, Sumithi, and Devi, and her nights with Mary and Shaba, we decided it was time for Mila to meet Tembo. On July 8, we put all six of the girls together for the first time, and, much to our relief, Tembo and Mila did great together! There has been a little pushing and chasing from Tembo as she asserts her dominance, but overall, they are getting along well.

Another step we have taken in the last few days is having Mila spend the night with not only Shaba and Mary but Devi and Sumithi as well. They have access to three of our four yards and have the ability to spread out to eat or interact as they chose. So far, they are all doing well together, which is exciting because it puts us one step closer to having all six of our female elephants living together in a group the majority of the time.

It’s been a slow process, but it’s worth the time and the effort knowing that after 35 years of being alone, Mila will finally have a herd she can call her own. The next time you visit the Zoo, make sure to stop by Elephant Odyssey so you’ll have the chance to see all six of our female elephants out in the yard together.

Lori Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Elephant Ranchipur: Healing Nicely

Ranchipur enjoys a cleansing spray of water.

For those of you who have visited the San Diego Zoo lately and not seen our magnificent male Asian elephant, Ranchipur…well, he had to go into our Special Needs Facility for a surgical procedure on his left front shoulder. In February 2011, we noticed a lump there, which we began treating and monitoring. About two months later, when the lump opened up on its own, and we knew it was an abscess, we began doing hydrotherapy and flushing it daily with a diluted disinfectant solution. Many of you probably saw us treating his shoulder in the Elephant Care Center stall area, since we always did it right there in front of our guests. We were not sure what had initially caused the abscess; we just wanted it to heal, even though Ranchipur was always very compliant during the treatment. After our veterinarians brought in a specialist to look at it, the decision was made to open up the abscess, clean it out, and leave the incision open so it would heal from the inside out.

Our veterinary staff decided we would do a “standing sedation” on him in our Special Needs Facility. This meant that he would go into the chute, be given a sedative, but he would still remain standing so we could access the shoulder. This involved taking him off exhibit for about three weeks while several keepers trained him for the procedure. On September 18, 2012, we brought him into the chute area, gave him a sedative, and started the surgery. There were close to 30 people on hand to assist in the process.

Once Ranchipur was secure and sedated, his shoulder was injected with a local anesthetic, and the surgery began. Everyone on the team had their assignments: one group monitored his breathing and anesthesia, another did an ultrasound image of the shoulder area before it was opened, vet techs worked at getting blood samples while another vet did a full physical exam. Lastly, the surgeons worked on the shoulder. Once they removed what was an encapsulated abscess about the size of a tennis ball and the area was cleaned up, the wound was flushed and left open to heal.

We do this because an elephant’s skin does not take well to being stitched up, and in this particular area on his body there is a lot of movement, so it would be difficult to keep it closed with sutures. We did give him a few sutures inside the wound at the very top, but the major portion of the incision was left open. This gives us the opportunity to flush it out daily with a hose and antiseptic solution. The surgery went great, Ranchipur recovered nicely, and he is now back on exhibit in his yard next to the dromedary camels and pronghorn in Elephant Odyssey.

When you visit, you may see that his shoulder still has an open wound. It may take several months for the wound to totally heal. We will continue to treat and take care of his shoulder until the day it completely heals. If you have any questions, make sure you ask one of us keepers who work in Elephant Odyssey.

Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Zoo Elephants: Ranchipur.


Zoo Elephants: Ranchipur

Ranchipur: Boys will be boys!

The San Diego Zoo’s male Asian elephant, Ranchipur, is a striking individual with a really good temperament. He cooperates with his keepers and allows us to take care of him on a daily basis. Many zoos across the country have males that are much more aggressive and difficult to work with because…they are male elephants!

It is not unusual for male Asian elephants to be in a period of heightened hormonal activity called musth. This is a time in a male’s life where he has lots of testosterone coursing through his body, and it really affects his mood and personality. This period can last from 2 to 12 months.

Ranchipur usually comes into musth around the end of July to the beginning of August. He first arrived at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey from our Safari Park in April 2009. He was quick to explore all of our yards and pools. Ranchipur showed signs of his first musth here at the end of July that year, and it lasted for about two months, but he continued to cooperate with the keepers, and we were able to care for him as we do for all of our elephants.

In 2010, for some reason, he did not come into musth. This was too bad, because we were hoping for the weight loss that usually accompanies musth. At one point he actually tipped the scale at almost 12,980 pounds (5,900 kilograms). That is too much to weigh for a 45-year-old elephant who has some hip problems. After his previous musth, he had lost almost 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms).

Since he didn’t come into musth, we had to try something else to get the weight off. He usually spent the nights with one of the females, but he also ate all of her food! We decided to start separating them at night to make sure each ate his or her own diet. Over the next several months Ranchipur did start to lose weight but was still pretty heavy. On July 28, 2011, he started to give off that familiar smell that is associated with musth. Then the tell-tale signs occurred: he started dribbling urine and secreting a foul-smelling substance from the temporal glands on each side of his head. At this point it was all we could do to transfer him between his exhibit and the one next door for cleaning. His appetite decreased to nothing, and he basically stared at the girls all day.

One day we decided to put our African elephant, Tembo, next to him to see his reaction. Usually he is scared of her and runs away. On this day he did turn and run, but then he dashed back. The two of them sparred for awhile, and then Tembo left. Ranchi was no longer afraid of her; in fact, he was quite interested in her. Off and on for the next three months we would put Tembo next to him, and he was right there to see her, but she ignored him. On October 21, we noticed that he was no longer dribbling urine or secreting from his temporal glands. Could his musth be over? To make sure, we put Tembo next to him, and, as before, he turned and ran from her. What happens during musth must stay in musth, because he doesn’t remember a thing!

Ranchipur is slowly coming back into his normal routine, and we were able to get a weight on him. He had lost 490 kilograms from his last weight in June. That is almost 1,000 pounds! He now weighs just a bit over 11,000 pounds (500 kilograms), which is a nice weight for him.

Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Zoo Elephants: Queen Mary.


An Elephant Goes to the Dentist…

What might sound like the opening of a joke, “An elephant goes to the dentist,” was serious business last week at the San Diego Zoo. Jewel, an Asian elephant, had a lower molar that wasn’t wearing properly and was hindering her eating.

So, to remedy this, and to get her back to eating properly, the San Diego Zoo brought a dentist to her. Well, actually, we brought in an entire team. See video

There were more than 30 people—made up of the elephant keepers, veterinarians, vets techs, and dental experts—who took part in the procedure. It took months of planning, dozens of meetings, and a full dress rehearsal the day before the procedure to make sure all went smoothly.

For an outsider, this was amazing to watch. I knew many of the people who had come together for this procedure, but rarely did I see so many of them in the same place at the same time. And then there were the people I didn’t know.

Dave Fagan, D.D.S., from The Colyer Institute, was the primary dentist on this procedure. He was also kind enough to give me a crash course on elephant teeth and how their diet plays a significant role in their dental heath, how their diets have changed over time, and that the teeth of Asian elephants wear a bit differently than those of African elephants.

Before I met Dr. Fagan, about all I really knew about elephant teeth was that each elephant goes through six sets of teeth in its lifetime. When an elephant works through its sixth set of teeth, it has pretty much reached the end of its life.

So, as I sat with Dr. Fagan on Tuesday morning, waiting for Jewel’s anesthetic to take effect, this is what I learned – put in my own layman terms:

Elephant teeth don’t fall out like human teeth, and they’re not shaped anything like any other teeth I’ve ever seen. Elephant teeth are long; they almost run the length of the elephant’s jaw. And they have well-defined sections within each tooth. The best way I can describe it: like the sections within an orange slice or a comb you’d use to brush your hair. All of these little sections are joined at the bottom. It’s one long tooth, about the length of a loaf of pre-sliced bread, with “perforations.”

Now, the story continues with how elephants use these teeth. Elephants grind their food. They place food between their upper and lower molars and grind on it in a circular motion. And when elephants grab their food, they also get a fair amount of sand in their mouths. And remember, their food includes large branches of trees. As they grind up branches, leaves, and some dirt and sand, over time the grinding motion and the tough nature of the food wears down the teeth and moves the teeth forward and a bit up from the gums. In theory, when the tooth is pushed forward and up by the elephant’s regular grinding of food, the small, perforated sections of the teeth break off, making room for the rest of the tooth and ultimately the next molar.

But this grinding and wearing down of the molar wasn’t happening with Jewel. Her bottom right molar had been pushed up and forward, but the section that was protruding hadn’t broken off. Instead, she had an up-slope at the front of her tooth. Rather than putting the food between the molars and grinding in a circular motion, she’d been limited to a small forward and backward motion, hindered by the “hook” of the bottom molar.

About this time, my lesson ended because the anesthetic had kicked in and the team was ready to start the procedure. As I watched from the viewing area, the mattress team was called in. Mattress team? Never knew we had a mattress team!

But that mattress team played a vital role in Jewel’s comfort. Staff laid down several mattresses and guided Jewel onto the padding for her dental checkup. Once she was down on her right side, animal care staff placed inner tubes between her legs to keep her legs spaced and to make sure that her joints weren’t under pressure.

Every person in the Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center that morning knew their role, and it all appeared to be executed flawlessly. The 30 people moved around the room like a well-rehearsed dance troupe.

Bales of hay were brought in and covered with clean towels to serve as tables for the doctors and vets. All of the tools were laid out, and cameras were quickly put into position to help see inside Jewel’s mouth.

Elephants have surprisingly small mouths. The way it was explained to me was that the dental team would only be able to open her mouth several inches. The team would be trying to work in a space about the size of the trash can at my desk, 18 inches (45 centimeters) or so. Big animal, small mouth.

While the dentist and vets were working in her mouth, the other 25 or so people in the elephant care center were taking advantage of the opportunity to complete other procedures on Jewel. While she was under the anesthetic, veterinarians completed a rectal ultrasound (no abnormalities noted), some basic foot care (trimmed her foot pads, cuticles and nails), and administered her rabies and tetanus shots. Animal care staff also took a blood and urine sample for analysis.

The entire procedure was beautifully choreographed with everyone working together to make it a success. The dental procedure and the secondary procedures took about two hours. The “hook” from the molar was removed.

I wasn’t there when Jewel woke up from the procedure but was told that once she was standing again, she took her trunk and felt inside her mouth, checking out the work. I found this endearing, because I think that we humans do the same thing: our tongues go to that space in our mouths when we lose a tooth as a child.

Throughout the whole procedure, the one emotion I felt most strongly was pride. I was proud that the San Diego Zoo had been asked to take care of this elephant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I am proud that we have the staff and resources that could complete such a critical procedure for Jewel. And proud that I work for an organization that has so much community support and believes in making the lives of elephants better.

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo.

Update: The Zoo’s elephants are scheduled to have a Snow Day on Wednesday, December 16. We hope you can come and watch the fun!


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