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Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 3


Vus’musi got busy checking out the sights, smells, sounds, and snacks of his new home.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.” Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Since Fresno’s climate is similar to San Diego’s and they’re just up the road, so to speak, having ’Musi go there on loan was a logical choice, especially if we’d like to have him return someday. (Can you picture Umngani’s reaction if that were to happen? Noooooooooo!)

Waiting for our arrival was the entire elephant care staff of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. We all stood back to watch the unloading of his crate, letting the professionals do their thing. As soon as the crate was where we wanted it, we had ’Musi present his front feet for us inside the crate so we could remove his tethers. Then we let him back himself out into his new digs. He cautiously walked down a long outside corridor, into the barn, and finally into a large stall where he could hear, smell, and see his new herd-mates two stalls away.

’Musi seemed quite excited that there were other elephants around. His attitude and behavior towards Mindy and I confirmed that he was a very well-trained elephant, able to adapt to change, and just awesome overall. Their staff couldn’t believe how calm and sweet ’Musi seemed after such a journey.

Mindy and I stayed with ’Musi and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff for five more days, getting him accustomed to his side of the barn and adjoining outside yard. We worked closely with their Elephant Lead, Ashley, and their Elephant Manager, Vernon, to show them ’Musi’s behavioral repertoire, his verbal and visual hand signals, and point out some of the subtle nuances of his personality. All of his major sessions were filmed and many discussions took place to make sure we were all on the same page, allowing for a smooth transition for ’Musi and his new keepers.

One of the fun things to watch was seeing ’Musi getting used to the new sounds and sights of his outside environment. The zoo sits fairly close to railroad tracks, and watching his eyes and expressions whenever a choo-choo rolled by was priceless. It reminded me of Mabu and Lungile in Tucson, the first few times a jet fighter flew over the skies above them. Eventually, they all habituate to their surroundings and then they don’t react at all, unless it’s something completely new, and even that goes away in a short time.

Many blog readers who read the news about the move wondered whether ’Musi misses his family or herd mates, or if Ndlula misses her son, etc. What you’ll find in the animal world—whether through observation or personally working with them—is that animals live in the “now.” They take a situation that they find themselves in, deal with it, and move on. If you think about it, in the wild, an animal that’s “reminiscing” or “daydreaming” would be easy prey. I’m sure that ’Musi would remember any of his herd mates if they were to cross paths once again, but I’m certain he’s not thinking “I wonder what Mom and my brother are up to?” or “I wonder who Msholo is sparring with now that I’m gone?” Likewise, Ndlula and the others may have “rumbled” to communicate with or locate ’Musi, but after not receiving a response, quickly focused their attention back to the present situation of eating and watching out for Swazi.

The most up-to-date news on ’Musi is that he’s no longer under quarantine, and will be going out into one of the main exhibits soon. Within a few weeks, he will be formally introduced to the girls out in the main exhibit. I’ll be heading up to Fresno to witness the introductions and will blog about it when I get back.

All of our elephants (any of our animals for that matter) that have moved away “on-loan” are still “our” elephants (San Diego Zoo Global). Rest assured that our ’Musi-boy is in good hands with the Fresno staff. He’ll win them over like he did with us on that first day on February 23, 2004. He’s all grown up now and it’s his time to carry on what his name means: Vus’musi, “To build a family.”


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1


Vus’musi, seen here in 2012 at the Safari Park, was recently relocated to the Fresno Chafee Zoo.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.”

Born on February 23, 2004, African elephant Vus’musi has grown into a young, handsome bull that outweighs each of the adult females in the Park’s herd. Known to his keepers as “Moose” or “‘Musi,” his genetics put a high value on him as a potential breeder for any zoo wanting to breed this species (including the Safari Park, someday in the future). His sire was a wild, unknown bull from Africa and his mom is our adult female, Ndlulamitsi. Within our current herd, he’s only related to his mom and his half brother, Lutsandvo. Most of you are no doubt wondering why ‘Musi was moved—excellent question!

Elephant natural history provides part of the answer. Behaviorally speaking, males eventually get displaced out of the herd in their early teens, so it was just a matter of time before Ndlulamitsi would have started to displace him more than she already had. Also, as ‘Musi matured he would eventually start going into musth—and it’s during these times of elevated testosterone that the youngster’s sparring with our adult bull, Msholo, would have gone from playful to assertive, aggressive behavior in an attempt to establish dominance. We always kept the two males apart overnight, because they enjoyed sparring so much that we thought that there was a greater chance for chipped tusks (or worse) if they were together. Keeping them apart when they were both in musth would have proven quite a challenge for us, had we kept both males at the Park.

Another reason for moving ‘Musi is his genetics, which placed him high on the Species Survival Plan (SSP) list of recommended bulls for breeding. Also, Fresno Chaffee Zoo was in the near-completion phase of its new African Adventure exhibit, had acquired two females from a sanctuary in Arkansas, and was looking for a bull to breed its two females. And Fresno Chaffee Zoo Director Scott Barton was quite familiar with our program and our elephants, as he had been involved with our move of five other herd members to Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, when he was director there. Altogether, it was deemed a good fit for ‘Musi.

‘Musi was Msholo’s favorite sparring partner. He was also, arguably, our best trained elephant, having been born into our training system and having had the luxury of getting lots of attention and individual sessions at an early age, and throughout his life. Easily a favorite among his keepers, ‘Musi’s demeanor is so calm and relaxed that many a new keeper “cut their teeth” with him, learning the techniques and philosophy of our positive, trust-based training system. Keith Crew, a senior keeper, has been one of ‘Musi’s primary trainers the entire 11 ½ years, and much of ‘Musi’s attitude and behavioral repertoire can be attributed to Keith’s long-term care of him. So, in answer to the question in your mind right now, the answer is yes, we all love our ‘Musi-boy, and we are excited for the next chapter in his life.

In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll tell you a little more about ‘Musi’s new home and herd mates—and all the planning and care that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant.

Stay tuned!

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, A Tusk Task.


Taking Care of Tusks

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all?

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all? Click to enlarge.

As you know, there have been a lot of things going on with our African elephant herd this year at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. For instance, you may have seen our trainers working with the elephants in different areas. You may have wondered what they doing with the elephants’ faces! Well….

Some members of our herd have broken or chipped their tusks, and our veterinary staff has had to perform pulpotomies (think root canal) to clean out any infected pulp. All of our elephants are pretty active, especially the little ones, so we have had to put extra protection on the tusks that have fillings. This protection is in the form of a gray material called Technovit (pronounced Techno–vite), and you may have seen us putting it on the tusks of Musi, Macembe, and Luti periodically. Swazi recently broke off a small part of her tusk. No pulp was exposed, and you may see us filing the jagged end of her tusk.

Unfortunately, Khosi and Emanti’s tusks broke and exposed too much pulp, and we were not able to save their broken tusks. For them, we have been flushing their sulcus (skin and cavity surrounding a tusk) to keep the cavity clean and to aid in the healing process. We use a diluted mixture of anti-bacterial solution and water sprayed out of a one-gallon sprayer. Our trainers have worked patiently with Khosi and Emanti to make them comfortable with this process. I am happy to report that they are doing well and healing nicely.

Our elephants are also given vitamin E every day. We’ve trained our elephants to perform a swallow behavior so that they will be able to swallow any medication or vitamin supplements as needed. Because they have such a well-developed sense of smell and taste, we give them their vitamin E followed by mango juice, as the vitamin E doesn’t taste very good!

Qinisa and Inhlonipho are growing up and asserting themselves. Qinisa’s milk tusks are starting to come in. Inhlonipho is wrestling with Emanti and Ingadze any chance he gets. He even charged Msholo (who was quietly eating hay). Msholo looked at him and then went back to eating the hay. When Inhlonipho gets older, he will be wrestling with the big boys.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the herd, either in person or on Elephant Cam!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Qinisa Turns 2.


Tracking Safari Park Elephants

Swazi receive a GPS anklet to wear during Charlotte's study.

Swazi receive a GPS anklet to wear during Charlotte’s study.

The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research works closely with the elephants both at the Zoo and the Safari Park. We consider research an important part of advancing elephant care and welfare, as well as providing us with opportunities to apply what we can learn about elephants here to those in the wild. Our most current project looks at the effects of quality versus quantity of exhibit space on elephant behavior, walking rates, and stress-related hormones in an effort to improve the welfare of elephants in zoos. Elephants need a good amount of space to fulfill their physical and psychological needs. However, space may not be of any use to an elephant if it is predictable. An elephant may benefit more from a smaller, more dynamic space (quality) rather than a larger, less dynamic space (quantity).

The Safari Park’s African elephants have access to both the east and west yards via a hydraulic gate. This gate makes it easy to manipulate the space, or quantity, of the exhibit for this study. To manipulate the quality of the space, we present controlled food enrichment. Using five different manipulations of food enrichment and available space two times a week for three trial periods, we can assess the relationships between quality and quantity.

Each manipulation lasts 22 hours. I come in to do observations in two- and-a-half-hour shifts three times to assess the elephants’ activity patterns and behavioral diversity. (This is when you might see me on Elephant Cam!). Eight of the elephants are equipped with GPS tracking anklets. With the help of some innovative thinking, we have designed an anklet to house the GPS device as an alternative to the typical collar devices. The device records the coordinates of the elephant wearing it every five seconds. At the end of the 22 hours, the GPS data is downloaded and sorted, and walking rates along with distance can be calculated.

The Safari Park's elephants stroll through the morning's mud.

The Safari Park’s elephants stroll through the morning’s mud.

Lastly, in order to examine the stress levels of the elephants, we collect both fecal and saliva samples representative of the time period of interest. Using both techniques allows us not only to gain a more robust picture of the amount of stress hormones present but also gives our endocrinologist an opportunity to perfect and define the methodology of these hormones via saliva samples, a technique which has been understudied in elephants.

It takes a lot of people (and elephants!) to make a study successful. The Elephant Team plays a huge role in helping us design and achieve solid research that can help elephants in a variety of places and situations. So far for this project, we have already found some potentially interesting results in regard to our elephants’ walking rates. I am excited to carry forward with the trials of the project. Stay tuned for another blog update when the study is finished!

Charlotte Hacker is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Elephants: A Playful Bunch

Macembe had a pulpotomy to repair and fill his chipped tusk.

Macembe had a pulpotomy to repair and fill his chipped tusk.

It has been awhile since you’ve heard from us about our elephants. There have been a few things happening with our herd, and I am sure you all know by now that there is never a dull moment with our herd!

We have a playful bunch of elephants. Msholo and Musi wrestle a lot together; Emanti and Inhlonipho (Neepo) are regular playmates, and sometimes, they have even teamed up against Luti, who is bigger and stronger. Little Qinisa has gotten so much more confident; she wrestles enthusiastically with Neepo and looks very pleased with herself if she wins. Kami and Khosi are best friends and often eat hay together. They still help Swazi take care of Qinisa.

You can often see Ingadze or Qinisa trumpeting while chasing after our native mule deer. Sometimes, they even get surprised by the normal things in our elephant yards. For example, a stump rolled down the hill in the east yard by the pool and wedged itself by another log. Inhlonipho got really excited and charged it while flaring his ears and trumpeting to try to scare it away.

Sometimes in all of the excitement, a tusk will get chipped. Macembe chipped the end of his tusk and exposed the pulp inside. He needed to get a pulpotomy to repair and fill his tusk. The vet staff and the keepers put forth a team effort, and the procedure went well. Macembe is back out with his family and playing with Emanti or Ingadze.

Now, with all of this activity going on, our little ones need to take naps. Yesterday afternoon, Qinisa was taking a nap near the mud bog with Khosi watching over her. Nearby, Umgani was watching over Ingadze and Inhlonipho sleeping together in a big pile. The scene was very tranquil.
Don’t you love watching them on our new Elephant Cam?

Happy holidays, everyone!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Pumpkin Fun for Elephants.


Keeping Cool, Elephant Style

An elephant calf dabs mud on its side.

Update: Macembe enjoys the mud bog.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s African elephants are very creative in the summer as they beat the heat. There are pools in both yards that the elephants swim in often. Swazi usually has a small parade of calves following her wherever she goes, usually Macembe, Qinisa, Kami or Khosi, and Emanti. It is fun to watch little Qinisa try to keep up with the bigger calves.

One day, Swazi and the calves were in the pool having fun and Qinisa was on the edge of the pool with Kami. Qinisa called out, and Swazi turned around and accompanied Qinisa into the pool to play with the other calves—it seemed that she wanted her mom to take her into the pool, too!

This calf seems to be waiting for the pool party to begin!

Update: Neepo seems to be waiting for the pool party to begin!

The mud bogs are a favorite with our elephants, as they provide a natural sunscreen and help cool them down on warm days. Sometimes, the elephants take turns using the mud bogs, but a lot of the time there is a big pile of calves on top of each other playing King of the Mountain in the mud. It seems that a muddy elephant is a happy one. We have lots of muddy elephants at the Safari Park!

Watch the fun daily on Elephant Cam,.

Laura Price is keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post,
Elephant Calves Update


Elephant Treat Time

An elephant play session.

An elephant play session.

One of our Elephant Cam viewers, Erin, mentioned that one of the best times to watch is when we keepers walk along the edge of the main yard with our buckets full of tasty pellets—elephant chow, as it were. Erin wondered if the elephants rumble or trumpet during this time?

This is a very exciting time for the elephants and for their keepers, and it is a true example of the relationship we have with them and just how well they work with their keepers. It’s a lot of work to move 13 elephants around more than 6 acres, 4 barns, 4 holding yards, and 2 big yards, so it’s a good thing they like us!

For the most part, the elephants are usually pretty quiet during moves. However, there is some noise if the youngsters get separated from their mothers; Mom usually stays with the keeper and just rumbles back to her calf to let him or her know where she is. There may be some trumpets or rumbles if a dominant elephant comes up behind a subdominant one and startles them.

I’m glad you all enjoy watching the excitement on Elephant Cam!

Mindy Albright is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Calf Learns the Ropes.


Elephant Names

Qinisa at one day old.

One of our Elephant Cam viewers asked if our newest elephant calf, Qinisa, knows her name yet. Name recognition depends on the individual animal and the frequency of reinforcement opportunities associated with that name being called and the corresponding correct response. We would then need something to be reinforcing for that animal.

In the case of a baby elephant, we keepers don’t have a lot to offer outside of tactile and visual stimuli. An elephant calf wouldn’t know his or her name until we started associating the name with a reinforcer that we know has established itself as such. So, when a calf starts showing interest in a certain food item, we’ll start calling the calf by name and reinforcing the correct response with that item. It’s usually a nickname that sounds different from that of any other elephant in our herd and one that everyone here can pronounce.

For Qinisa, her nickname is still up for grabs, and we call her a bunch of different names and sounds at the present. Personally, I like “bad baby #12”. 😉

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Quick Qinisa Update.