Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center


Elephants Mila and Mary Meet

The San Diego Zoo's newest elephant: Mila.

The San Diego Zoo’s newest elephant: Mila.

Our newest elephant, Mila, is rounding out her first three months with us here at the San Diego Zoo, and she is doing extremely well, exceeding all of our expectations. A few weeks ago she cleared her mandatory quarantine period after receiving a clean bill of health by our veterinarians. As discussed in her previous blog entry, we were awaiting the results from her tuberculosis tests. Mila’s results came back negative, and at her overall health exam, she was in good health.

We have been working very hard to make Mila’s transition to her new home as smooth as possible. One of the most important aspects is that we ask Mila to participate in all of her daily care. Although she has had the chance to meet each member of our elephant care team, we have designated a core group of four keepers to help adjust her to her new life and routine. We use operant conditioning as the focus of our training program, relying heavily on positive reinforcement to reward our elephants. Mila was already conditioned to an array of training before her arrival; however, it has been our goal to get her used to how we work with all of the other elephants at the San Diego Zoo.

We have been working with Mila on having all of her feet hosed and scrubbed with soap, along with presenting her feet for “pedicures.” Other behaviors we have focused on include having her open her mouth for optimal viewing of her teeth, presenting an ear for future blood draws and allowing us to touch every part of her body. This training not only allows us to take care of Mila every day, but it also helps build her trust and confidence with her keepers and her new routine. She continues to amaze us with her ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations.

Mila explores one of the yards in the Zoo's Elephant Odyssey.

Mila explores one of the yards in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey.

As soon as we knew Mila was clear of quarantine, we immediately gave her the opportunity to explore outside of the special needs facility where she had spent all of her time so far at the Zoo. Every elephant who has moved to the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center has shown different reactions to moving throughout the facility. Mila, being the confident elephant that she is, had no problem walking through the large entryway and out into the main facility. She was accompanied by one of our keepers who has been working with her since her arrival to help make the exploration more comfortable for her. Mila had plenty of time to explore every inch of the stalls and scale area, becoming familiar with every new sight, smell, and sound.

Her normal care routine was soon transitioned from the special needs facility to the main stalls, which can be viewed by Zoo guests. Every day she was asked to participate in her daily foot care in one of the stalls, given a bath, and even asked to stand on the platform scale so we could record her weight. After a few days, we gave her access to one of the main exhibit yards. The yards are pre-set with plenty of tasty food items in puzzle feeders, along with several novel enrichment items to enhance her experience outside for the first time. Of course, we took every precaution to make sure Mila would be comfortable in the yard; however, she proved ready to explore with enthusiasm, and we couldn’t be happier with her progress into her new home.

Mila is now on exhibit at various times throughout the day for everyone to see and admire. She is not on a schedule, meaning every day is different for her. We try our best to give her as much time as possible out in one of the exhibit yards during the day to allow her to enjoy the sunshine and to get some exercise. She is also now staying in one of the exhibit yards overnight. During her first venture outside overnight, I and another keeper accompanied her to observe her behavior and make sure the experience went well. Her first night went without a hitch, and she continues to spend time in the exhibit overnight as we progress her through acclimating to life at the San Diego Zoo.

It is important to remember that prior to arriving here, Mila had spent the majority of her life without other elephants. It has been more than 30 years since she has interacted with another elephant, and giving her the ability to live in a social setting with other elephants was a key point in moving her here. Since her arrival, Mila has been able to communicate with the rest of the elephants as well as smell, hear, and even see them from a distance. Even though the rest of the female elephants have plenty of experience meeting new arrivals, we were unsure how Mila would react.

Mila flares her ears at Mary.

Mila flares her ears at Mary.

In late January, we gave Mila the first opportunity to meet another elephant with limited interaction. We decided that Mary was the best option, given she is a dominant elephant in the herd, is relatively calm, and has a good track record with meeting newcomers. The first interaction was done with each elephant in separate adjoining yards, using a mesh wall as the barrier between the two elephants. We were uncertain how Mila would react; being excited, nervous, scared, aggressive, or submissive were all possibilities we could have expected to observe. Mary was curious of the newbie, while Mila was surprised to find something as big as her on the other side of the wall! These initial meet-and-greets have the potential to go in many different directions; there is no textbook answer to say how new elephants will react to one another. We use observation and our knowledge of elephant behavior to gauge the success of the introductions.

On day two, we gave Mary and Mila the ability to have increased physical interactions using more exposed barriers between the two of them. Mila started off on the defensive, possibly unsure that Mary, too, is in fact an elephant. It was her initial reaction to let Mary know that Mila was just as big as Mary was. There was nudging and pushing at one another between the barrier, several trunk slaps, and even a temper tantrum or two on Mila’s end. Mila was even flaring her ears out to make herself look more impressive. For the most part, their encounters have been relatively calm and fascinating to watch as the two get to know each other more. It is our hope that Mary’s interactions will help shape Mila’s behavior when she meets other females within our herd. Mary is generally laid back but means business when she needs to.

Elephants are as individual in their personalities as humans are, so each new meeting will come with different behaviors. Only time will tell when we are ready for Mary and Mila to share the same space, but we are confident that their relationship will continue to grow stronger as they spend more time together. In the meantime, look for Mila the next time you visit the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey—she just may be out on exhibit. The other elephants appreciate your visit to the Zoo as well.

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Welcome, Elephants Connie and Shaba!

Shaba, left, and Connie get comfortable in San Diego.

Connie and Shaba came to us from the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, just about a month ago (see post Elephant Moves). Their new lives in San Diego started with one very long and exciting day: they were loaded into crates first thing in the morning, lifted onto a flatbed truck, and given a police escort all the way to the San Diego Zoo! On arrival, they were welcomed into our special-needs facility at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, where they will stay for the duration of their mandatory quarantine period.

The special-needs facility has everything we need to get these two amazing animals acclimated to living here and being a part of our herd. If you’ve never taken a tour of our facility, you may not know what we have inside the building at the Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center. There is a large stall with cushioned flooring big enough for double occupancy. This is where we do our training sessions. There are mesh training walls, hanging toys and feeders, and a chute for more up-close health inspections. The special-needs facility also has its own yard, separate from the other elephant yards, where Connie and Shaba can get sun, dirt, mud, fresh air, and some downtime when they aren’t working with keepers. We are excited for the day we can let them into our bigger yards and watch them explore, but in the meantime, we are keeping them pretty busy!

Connie, 45, and Shaba, 32, spent their first day here relaxing, eating, and checking out their new space. We wanted to give them some time to get used to the idea that some big changes had happened. We were fortunate that Bruce and Gale, keepers who have worked with Connie and Shaba for decades, made the journey with them and stayed to help with the transition.

On day two, we started some very basic training sessions. Connie and Shaba were trained in a similar manner at Reid Park. However, some of the words we use are a little different, so basically they are being taught a new dialect. We teach them the new vocabulary the same way we train any behavior with any of our animals, using positive reinforcement. It’s kind of like a game of hot and cold with encouraging words and targets to help them understand what we are asking them to do, and a whistle and reward (usually a treat) when they get it right. With repetition and consistency, it doesn’t take long for an elephant to figure out exactly what we want; they are incredibly intelligent.

One very important part of training is developing a trusting relationship between keeper and elephant. We are working on this by slowly introducing Connie and Shaba to our staff. While in quarantine, they will have four consistent keepers: Ann, Scott, Jane, and me. When quarantine is over, each of the other keepers will be introduced to Connie and Shaba over a period of time. Connie, especially, needs time to get used to new people. We’ll use her behavior as a guide for how quickly or slowly we make changes to her environment. For now, we do training sessions throughout the day and focus on keeping both of them stimulated, healthy, and comfortable in their new situation.

Shaba was quick to catch on to our foot scrub routine. She presents all four feet through the foot hole of our training wall and allows us to scrub her feet, file her nails, and trim the pads of her feet. For the first couple of days Shaba was hesitant to be separated from Connie during individual training sessions or health checkups and reacted every time we opened or closed a door. Now she seems eager to come in for her individual training sessions and stands calmly, stationed with a keeper, as doors open and close around her. Shaba has learned to trust us, and her new environment, a great deal. Our goal is to get her even more comfortable with being touched so we can do a full physical exam, including letting our vets getting a little “up close and personal.” That will take some time, but she is showing so much potential.

Connie takes a little more time to warm up to new keepers. She has a history of being very choosy about whom she will cooperate with, but once she does, she has bonded closely. Thus, we are going at her pace. She may not have presented her foot the first day like Shaba did, but she is willing to do a little more every day, and we love that. Connie is very comfortable in the chute. She’s allowing the door to be closed and has been offering all four feet for scrubs. She has also started presenting a foot through the training wall for some toenail filing. We’re keeping her sessions short and sweet, and she’s rewarding us with some good work. Training is all about give and take.

When they’re not in a training session, Connie and Shaba get access to both their stall and yard. They have hanging feeders, pellet toys, and a huge dirt pile for digging and dusting. They both enjoy their toys. Shaba will balance a pellet ball on her tusks and gently shake it with her trunk to get the treats out. Connie will demolish any cardboard toy and devour the treats inside almost before you can blink!

Both of our newest elephants have been so much fun to get to know. We are looking forward to the day all of our guests can meet them and enjoy them as well. Until then, keep checking the blog! We’ll do our best to keep you up to date.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Elephants Tina and Jewel: Out and About

First, let me say Happy New Year to everyone! Since Jewel’s dental procedure (see post An Elephant Goes to the Dentist…), we have had a lot going on around the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Jewel and her best buddy, Tina, spend most of their days out in Yard 2 (not visible to the public) or Yard 3 (near the Elephant Care Center). Tina, always the bold explorer, easily moves around the new areas investigating everything, while Jewel is more cautious and takes her time. By the third day, they both moved around Yard 3 with comfort. On January 6, they got to spend their first day exploring Yard 1 (the largest area with the pool). Having acclimated to other yards, they both seemed comfortable fairly quickly. Tina even stepped into the pool and splashed around a bit.

Besides exploring their Elephant Odyssey home, they continue to spend fence time with all the other elephants. Everyone seems to have taken a real liking to Jewel, always approaching her slowly and gently. Since Tina is a bit more spirited, she has the occasional pushing competitions with the other elephants; but in general, everyone gets along great!

Here’s a funny moment that happened recently….Tina and Jewel were in Yard 2 and Ranchipur, our bull elephant, was in Yard 3. Ranchipur made his way to the fence line between the two yards. From my angle, I couldn’t see exactly what happened next, but it has to be one of two things: either Ranchi realized he didn’t know Tina and Jewel, or Tina reached through the cables and touched him. Either way, Ranchi turned and ran like a scared rabbit. So much for the big, tough male image! I have to say that I have never seen him move that fast. This is all part of elephant introductions, and hopefully he will realize Tina and Jewel are pretty and fun to be around.

Please stop by, say hello, and see the girls out in the yards!

Victoria Zahn is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.