elephant keeper


7th Birthday for Khosi

Khosi makes short work of her iced treat!

Khosi makes short work of her iced treat!

There was a flurry of activity as the Safari Park elephant keepers were setting up for our daily Keeper Talk on September 11. Branches of ficus were put around Tembo Stadium. A bran cake was set up in the middle of the arena with flowers next to it spelling out “Khosi 7.” It was Khosi’s seventh birthday!

Khosi’s trainer led her into the presentation area. The birthday girl was concentrating so hard on her trainer that she walked right by the cake without noticing it! She was asked to back up and finally noticed her goodies. Khosi seemed to really enjoy her cake, and she walked around eating her browse. What a treat!

Laura Price is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, First Birthday for Qinisa.


Welcome, Little Girl!

We look forward to watching our newest elephant grow!

Elephant keeper Weston must have the magic touch: he’s been on a few 24-hour night-watch shifts here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and has been lucky to witness three elephant births in the three years he’s worked for us.

I received a call at home from Weston at 3:17 in the morning on Tuesday, August 28; he said he thought Swazi’s behavior was becoming more active. I told him to call me back if labor progressed, because we both thought that a birth might be a few hours away. I wondered (and really wished) if I could get another hour of sleep before I started making phone calls. I contemplated my next move. Lying in bed with my eyes closed while holding onto my cell phone, I received a text at 3:32 a.m. that read “I’d say we are under way.” While getting dressed in the dark, I managed to send out two texts to inform others of Swazi’s sudden change of behavior when, 14 minutes later, Weston texted me “baby is out.” Just like Swazi’s last calf, once she shows she’s in real labor, it’s over quickly!

Two incoming volunteer night watchers missed the birth by five minutes, but two others got to see the whole thing. By the time I rolled in, everything was pretty calm: Swazi and the newborn in our lower holding yard, son Macembe socializing through the cables with Umngani’s clan and Kami and Emanti out in the main yard. Weston said the calf got up within 15 minutes of birth, and Swazi was moving the calf around with her feet quite a bit. (Elephant moms scuff their feet along their newborn’s body to remove the amniotic sac and to get the calf to start breathing. It looks extremely aggressive, to say the least). Weston originally thought it was a boy, but the volunteers thought it was a girl. I didn’t commit either way until some daylight came out and I had personally observed a few urinations. Even when I was 95 percent sure it was a girl, I couldn’t come out and say it right away, because six boys in a row will do that to you! It will take staff many months before we quit saying “he” when referring to the newest calf.

Because it was important that she received the colostrum from Mom’s milk, I decided to separate Macembe into the lower yard and have Mom and new baby in the upper yard. Weston said that even though Swazi was shooing him away, Macembe still managed to sneak in a couple of quick nursings (Kami was the same way when her mother, Umoya, had Emanti). The upper yard is also more level, which would give baby a better chance at nursing.

Well, our new baby definitely isn’t Macembe-size, that’s for sure! As she attempted to nurse, it was obvious that she’d really have to stretch to reach long-legged Swazi’s nipples. We all started to wonder if she even could. Not seeing any success has a way of working on your anxieties. When we decided to try to weigh the baby just after 10 in the morning, we stopped Mom down the hallway, which allowed the calf to get into a great position to nurse. She found it! So, just over six hours after being born, the calf finally nursed (always one of two “huge-relief” milestones we like to see). Eventually, the calf nursed again, each successive nursing getting better and better, and now she’s good to go.

The next milestone was Mom passing her placenta. We could see that Swazi was still having contractions, and she looked great physically and behaviorally, so it became a waiting game with much worrying on our part. According to our data collections on 12 births, the placenta passed by the ninth hour or it didn’t. Swazi passed her placenta at 6:48 p.m. So doing the math, that’s over 16 hours. Who cares? It’s out! It looked completely intact, so we shoveled it into a plastic-lined trash can, double-bagged it, and put it in one of our extra refrigerators. Now it’s in the hands of our pathologists, who just love dissecting and studying these things.

Now it’s back to new-baby-normal for all of us. Macembe is back with Mom as well. He sure got the message this time around: as far as milk is concerned, it’s over! He vocalized his displeasure at Momma’s disciplining ways, and for now, keeps his distance. If all continues to go well, Swazi’s clan will meet the other moms and calves today. We’ll have Msholo join the gang on Sunday.

So keep your fingers crossed that all continues to go well, and hey, it’s a GIRL!!!!!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Vus’Musi.


Park Elephant Update

Have you been checking out the construction of our yard project, connecting the two large elephant yards at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? Currently, our African elephant herd lives in one yard, and adult male Msholo lives in the other yard. It will, I hope, be completed very soon!

Our plan is to acclimate all the females and their calves to Msholo’s  “West Side” yard, keeping him separated by just a gate so they can physically and visually check each other out through the gate openings. We’ll keep the adult bulls separated. Physical introductions with Msholo will depend on what we observe and how comfortable the elephants are with the new yard or how they interact with Msholo through the gate. Msholo should know his original herd mates Umngani, Swazi, and Umoya, from their time in Swaziland, but back then the females didn’t have calves. We really don’t know what any of them are going to do, so plans will change. My best advice is to stay glued to Elephant Cam!

All the elephants are doing well. Babies are growing fast, and you can check their recent weights in the Meet the Elephants section. Macembe is still quite independent and still plops down anywhere to sleep. He hangs out with Mabu a lot. Emanti is playing more and more with Lutsandvo and Macembe and knows well enough to stay out of Swazi’s way. Musi and Lungile still do their “gate fighting” whenever possible, and Musi and Impunga still wrestle with each other. Khosi and Kami keep a watchful eye on their little brothers, and a fresh mud bog is always a big hit with everyone.

A day with Msholo is a physically exhausting day. Because he’s such a quick eater, we have to set in some form of difficult-to-get enrichment device with every flake of hay he gets so that it will keep him busy. Brian, one of our keepers, is a master at coming up with novel enrichment ideas and is constantly changing locations for Msholo’s food items. The amount of time and energy we put into enrichment for all of our elephants every day is truly amazing. I’ll go out on a limb and boast that as far as enrichment goes, we are the most dedicated group of elephant keepers on the planet!

We are expecting two more calves in 2011. Litsemba is due with calf #2 in January, and Umngani is due with Calf #3 in the fall. Mabu is well represented as a father, and three calves is more than enough with any one female, so we’d like to see if Msholo is viable as well. Way easier said than done!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Park Elephant Answers.

Update: Watch the introduction, which took place December 16, 2010.


Park Elephant Answers

Impunga takes a nap.

Here are some answers to questions posed by our elephant fans about the African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

Calves, in general, start eating solid food around their fourth month. By seven months they’re eating it all, including the pellets that we use to train them, which become their favorite item.

Macembe has to have good elephant manners when around any other animal if Mom Swazi isn’t next to him, which is frequently. He usually climbs onto Emanti whenever they get together, but rarely is Emanti far away from his mom, Umoya, so his dominance is short-lived. He loves his wrestling matches with Lutsandvo though.

When we do our “Elephant Rush” (it’s at 11:30 a.m. nowadays) you might see us holding an animal back to go last, but not always. What we like to do is get the animals that have been in the barns out first before we let the animals that were in the yards out. If Mabu is in the barns while we clean the main yard, he’s typically the last to come out; he doesn’t need first crack at the goodies because he gets to most of it anyway. If we have time to train before the Rush, we may bring out some elephants earlier and train them and then let the majority (at least seven of them) out as the “Rush;” this tends to look more like an elephant “trickle.”

Do the elephants’ react to earthquakes? I don’t think the elephants know what an earthquake is, but I wouldn’t doubt that they could feel or hear it coming before we could. Forming their protective circle around their calves just seems like a logical thing they would do whenever they feel threatened or spooked. Our elephants have always maintained this natural behavior, which is really cool to observe. They do react to new construction noises and smells but quickly habituate or become desensitized to them. We want our elephants to get used to any and everything that’s out there, so we don’t tell Park guests to “be quiet” or to not fly the Balloon Safari, etc. On a side note, we have seen that if the elephants are initially spooked by a new noise or smell, they will go into their protective circle.

Ndlulamitsi’s right curved tusk broke off a couple of weeks ago. We noticed a fresh scrape on ‘Musi’s derriere the same day, so we think she busted it off while telling her son to get lost. Not to worry; it’ll grow back, and the pulp cavity wasn’t exposed. And ‘Musi is still a momma’s boy.

Elephants do show affection or offer a greeting by massaging each other’s head with their trunk. Mabu does this with Umngani, Swazi, Litsemba, and Lungile a lot, and they all do it toward someone at some point. It does appear quite affectionate at times. When it’s male to male it seems as if it could also be a “sizing up” before wrestling ensues.

Impunga has been notorious for lying down across a dirt mound. Is it colic? We think he simply loves the feel of the cool dirt on his belly. Most of the other boys seem to love doing this as well. It’s only rarely that I’ve seen an adult lie down on their side and quickly get back up that looked like an adjustment for a possible colic situation. It’s not uncommon at all for elephants to lie down. When they want some deep sleep, they lie down. When they have a new calf, the moms sleep standing up, even though they sure look like they want to lie down. But instincts say to stay on guard and to wake up the calves every half hour or so to nurse.

Does Mabu have a favorite offspring? I can definitely say that it’s not Impunga or Khosi. I would say that Kami is his favorite, and currently Macembe hangs out with him more than anyone else. Both Macembe and Lutsandvo also try to nurse off of him. Mabu doesn’t really initiate anything “fatherly,” but he sure does tolerate them all, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have such a great bull. (He’s my favorite elephant, by the way.)

For Don, the earliest recorded weight we have on Impunga was when he was three days old and he weighed 98 kilograms or about 216 pounds. As far as your theory on the mothers’ ventral edema (sagging stomach), even our vets don’t know the cause or the cure. For now I would say you’ve made an interesting observation. Only time and a bigger sampling will tell if you’re on to something.

Dianna from Ohio would like it if we could do a blog on a “Day in the Life of an Elephant Keeper.” Boy, would that be a write up! It would take a massive amount of time, and I’d probably want to post some set-up blogs such as how we train, why we train, and how and why we manage them the way we do. It would be quite an undertaking.

What are we going to do with all the males? For now they’re staying put. If Msholo proves to be viable or perhaps needs to have Mabu leave to become viable, then Mabu, a well-represented bull here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, would probably need to be moved to an AZA-accredited zoo where he can continue to take part in an African elephant conservation program. With the nearly completed yard connection, we have the possibility of having a yard just for the males, if need be. What a bunch of yahoos that would be! Male calves in the wild usually get kicked out from the protection of Mom or the herd around 8 to 10 years of age, so we have a lot of time to plan. The age and size differences between Mabu and ‘Musi are so great that we don’t see a problem between those two at present. The same goes for Msholo and ‘Musi, but we don’t know what Msholo will be like toward ‘Musi. As his sire was a wild bull from Swaziland, ‘Musi is a very important breeding possibility. Some day we hope to build a new African elephant facility designed to house different elephant social groups somewhere out along the Journey into Africa tour path. I would love to keep all of them, but that’s because I’m attached to them.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Manners.


Elephant Manners

Swazi's son, born April 2010

In my last post, Umoya’s Calf, I mentioned that due to the social hierarchy within the African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the newest elephant calf, born May 12, 2010, to Umoya, has learned to “watch his step” around Swazi. Let me explain:

All the calves have to learn and establish their social rank in the herd, just as they would in the wild. Since Umoya is the second-ranked female, her calf benefits from his mother’s rank as long as she is nearby. Since Swazi is the top-ranked female, she doesn’t have to be submissive to any of the other females or their calves. Umoya’s calf is learning that around Swazi in particular, there is a submissive way to approach her, and there is the wrong way to approach her. He’s learning that the wrong way to approach her is head-on and that he should get out of her way when she’s moving about.

A submissive posture for an elephant is to turn around and back in toward the more dominant elephant as if “asking permission” to be in the dominant elephant’s space. It also appears to me that when the submissive elephant is startled by a situation that involves one or more dominant elephants, they will not only turn around, but they’ll vocalize and urinate as if to punctuate that they’re being submissive. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Sorry, sorry, it wasn’t me, I’m sorry!”

Each encounter that I’ve observed has its own subtle nuances. Depending on which animals are involved and the situation, it gives me new angles in which to deduct its meaning. Someone else may interpret it differently as well. It’s all very fascinating to observe!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

Watch the Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam!


Elephant Odyssey: One Year

Jewel, on left, and Tina

Memorial Day has come and gone as we celebrate our one-year anniversary here at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. What a year it has been! Asian elephants Tina and Jewel continue to settle into their new home with us. (See post Elephants Tina, Jewel at 8 Months.)

Jewel has had her second dental procedure (read about her first procedure in An Elephant Goes to the Dentist…). The tooth was very loose, so they decided to remove it and give the new tooth room to grow in straight

She cooperated like a champ, listening to her keeper through the whole procedure. By the next day, she was back to eating her normal diet and hanging out in the sun with her elephant buddy, Tina.

Every day we see new and fun aspects to Jewel and Tina’s personalities. As you may know, Devi is a true water-loving elephant, frequently playing in the pool throughout the summer. As it turns out, Tina is also a lover of water. Just the other day I was hosing her in the smaller pool in Yard 4. Tina got very excited, lying down and splashing her body and legs wildly for over five minutes. It’s one of those moments as a keeper that are pure joy to watch. After her bath, she finished her itch-and-scratch routine on the logs and rocks, which had her bending in some very interesting positions. Jewel also likes the water but to date has not shown as much love for it as Tina. Stay tuned!

Tina is also turning out to be a bit of a musical prodigy. Several of the elephants know how to play the harmonica, so I thought I would see what Tina would do if I gave it to her to play. She immediately started playing, but unlike the other elephants, she also started moving her head and singing along. As I later learned, this was a behavior she previously knew before coming to live with us. Next time you visit, you might get lucky and catch a tune.

For the future I plan to teach them both how to paint. Keep a lookout at future Zoo fund-raisers for one of their masterpieces!

Victoria Zahn is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.


A May Elephant Baby

Meet our newest elephant!

On the night of May 12, while the night-watch volunteers at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park were doing the final week of watches on African elephant Swazi’s calf (born April 12, see post Newest Elephant Calf), Umoya decided it was time to have her second calf—one day earlier than a 21-month gestation (21 to 22 months is normal).

She didn’t give the keepers who were in that day any physical or behavioral signs that birth was impending, and her hormones had not dropped to birthing levels, so she was out with the rest of the herd in the main yard. The night-watch volunteer heard a big commotion (lots of trumpeting) around 8:15 in the main yard, and the elephants in the upper yards reacted by heading over to the cables and peering out into the darkness. It wasn’t until about 1:30 in the morning that Umoya and some of the others headed over to the cables where the lights allowed the night watcher to notice that Umoya had a little calf next to her. Seeing that Lutsandvo was next to his mother, Ndlulamitsi, it was now obvious that we had a new baby on the ground!

After some frantic phone calling, four of the keepers came in and were able to separate Umoya, Kami (her 2 1/2-year-old daughter), and her new calf into the upper yards to make observations a lot easier. The calf looked healthy, and successful nursing was soon observed. We also noticed that he was a boy. That makes all three calves born this year boys!

We never saw Umoya pass her placenta (which, according to data collected from all the other previous births we’ve had, normally occurs within four hours). As daylight approached, and the rest of the keepers came in, we moved the elephants around so that we could get access to the main yard. We scoured the main yard a couple of times, but we never found any sign of a passed placenta. Meanwhile, Umoya was nursing her calf, and for the most part, everything was fairly normal. He weighed in at 220 pounds (100 kilograms) the first morning. He lost a few kilograms the next day but was back up to birth weight by his fifth day. All of this was normal, as well as his total minutes of observed nursing during this time.

Our concern was mostly focused on Umoya because of her retained placenta and the complications that it could lead to. Giving her hormonal therapies over the first week didn’t produce the desired results we hoped for. Leaning on the experience gained from past experience, and in collaboration with our veterinary staff, it was decided to intervene and remove the placenta on May 21. With a procedure that involved a lot of different departments working together, and experts in various fields of study, the placenta was successfully removed through an incision just below her tail. It really couldn’t have gone more smoothly than it did, a credit to all the professionals in this organization who are truly dedicated to the animals under their care.

Mom and calf were soon reunited, and we continued to keep close watch on both of them. The calf started to lose weight over the next four days, so now our concern focused on him. His nursing totals were still very good: Umoya looked to be producing milk, and we expressed milk daily to make sure. But was it enough? The calf’s behavior also appeared more lethargic. If things continued in this trend, we were prepared to intervene if needed, from trying to supplement with bottle feedings to pulling the calf and hand rearing it.

Well, on May 25, he gained a kilogram in weight. He also looked better behaviorally. The next day he gained another kilogram in weight. Every day he gained a little more weight and looked better each day as well. He currently (as of June 1) weighs 225 pounds (102 kilograms)! Things are looking up for both of them. We even put Kami back in with Mom and calf during the day while the keepers observe them. We had to separate Kami temporarily: she was so persistent with trying to nurse off of Umoya that her mother would eventually give in, especially when she wasn’t feeling so well. We couldn’t afford to have Kami steal her brother’s milk, especially when it was imperative that he gain weight. She really is the “spoiled” child! Anyway, Mom seems to be able to keep her firstborn at bay now and dedicate her milk exclusively to her new son, so we’ll probably put them back together for good soon enough.

What’s the new guy like? Man, does he love water! He’ll guzzle it right from a hose and doesn’t care if you give him a bath while you’re doing it! He thinks his dad, Mabhulane, is pretty cool; he tries to nurse off of him like the other two youngsters do.

Sorry this post took so long getting out to the elephants’ adoring public. We’ve been very busy and not sure how this saga was going to play out. We hope to see you at the Wild Animal Park for the African Summer Festival celebrating these elephants!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

Watch our African elephant herd daily on Elephant Cam.


Newest Elephant Calf

As of May 11, the Wild Animal Park’s newest calf (born on April 12, 2010) weighs 312 pounds (142 kilograms) and continues to gain about 2 pounds a day. Son of first-time mother Swazi, he was our biggest baby at birth at 268 pounds (122 kilograms). The as-yet-named calf has become an efficient “nurser” and also enjoys “nursing” from #1 Auntie, Lungile (who’s not lactating), and occasionally his dad, Mabu, who’s definitely not lactating and has this bewildered look on his face! The baby nurses like clockwork about every half hour and for about two minutes total each time.

Just like Lutsandvo before him (born February 14, 2010; see post New Elephant to Love), he’s learned that older half-sisters Khosi and Kami are really nice and Lungile especially so. He’s enjoying playing with Lutsandvo more and more each day, and they get into a lot of head-to-head shoving matches to see who’s tougher. The little guy is not quite independent like Lutsandvo is, but he’s starting to participate with him in the mud bog pile-ons with half-brothers Ingadze and Impunga, and Khosi and Kami.

The calf has become very good at letting us getting a weight on him, but he’s now refusing to leave the scale area afterward. Every baby has gone through this phase; it’s like they realize they can finally control something, such as the gate that would shut behind them when they were younger but now will not shut if they linger in the doorway. It only lasts a few weeks at most, but it comically chaps our hides every time. We’ve called every baby “bad baby” during this phase! Ah, the joy they bring.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.


Elephants Tina, Jewel at 8 Months

Well, it is hard to believe that it has been almost a year since we moved the elephants over to Elephant Odyssey and more than eight months since Tina and Jewel arrived.

Tina and Jewel have made great strides since they joined us back in August 2009. Currently, we are training them for their annual physicals, and both are doing really well. To keep training consistent, each elephant is assigned two primary keepers who train a behavior to completion before handing it off to the rest of the keeper staff.

An annual physical consists of an eye exam, neck palpation, mammary palpation, checking the mouth and feet, and a rectal exam. Standing still for any of these behaviors is always voluntary on the part of the elephant, and both girls have taken really well to the training. As one of Tina’s primary trainers for the exam, I am really proud of how much she appears to trust us. I also believe she enjoys the personalized attention she gets during a training session. We have even successfully drawn blood for the first time, a milestone with any elephant.

Besides preparing for physicals, we are continuing introductions with the elephants (see post Elephant Introductions Continue). At least once a week we put Jewel, Cha Cha, and Sumithi together. All three appear to enjoy spending time together, and Cha Cha particularly likes using Jewel as a rubbing pole when she has a hard-to-reach itch. We are also putting Tina, Jewel, and Sumithi together regularly. The initial introduction involved a bit of chasing between Tina and Sumithi, and Tina quickly showed her dominance over Sumithi. They have all settled down now, and get along quite well.

Stay tuned for future exploits!

Victoria Zahn is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Elephants Cha Cha and Tembo.


Elephant Introductions Continue

Tina and Jewel

Today we took a step closer to acclimating elephants Tina and Jewel into the Elephant Odyssey family at the San Diego Zoo: Jewel was introduced into Yard 3 of Elephant Odyssey with Sumithi and Cha Cha (see post Elephants Cha Cha and Tembo).

The Zoo’s elephant care staff discussed over time what we felt would be the easiest and best way to introduce all of our elephants (we currently have nine). We first started off introducing Sumithi and Devi (original Zoo residents) with Cha Cha and Cookie (elephants that formerly lived at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park). Then we progressed to adding Tembo (Zoo) into the mix. There were some exciting times with lots of interactions and some pushing and shoving, but we learned a lot. For the last several weeks we have continued the introductions with Sumithi, Devi, and Cha Cha actually spending the nights together and doing very well. During the days we include Tembo; as time has gone by, this new grouping has gotten better. Cha Cha is very concerned about Tembo, but luckily she feels safe when she is with Sumithi. There have been some altercations, but nothing that would cause us to alter our plans.

All of those meet and greets have brought us to the next phase, which is to introduce Tina and Jewel (elephants brought to us by the U.S.D.A.) to the group (see Elephants Tina and Jewel: Out and About). It was decided that Jewel would be the next to have a play date. Because of her demeanor and how we have seen her interact with the others through the fences, it was decided she should meet Sumithi and Cha Cha first. I am happy to say that it went very well!

Sumithi and Cha Cha went into the yard first, and then Jewel was given access to the same yard. Right away, Jewel approached Sumithi, walked right next to her, and joined her in eating out of the hay mangers in the “utilitrees” (artificial structures where keepers place food). Cha Cha was a bit more cautious, but did finally come over to say hello. The three elephants spent most of the morning eating and moving around the yard, and several of those travels put all three in the same area. We saw no touching, but they were all very calm, which is exactly what we wanted. We will continue these introductions for another day or two, and then we will let Tina into the mix, followed soon by Devi and, hopefully, Tembo.

Elephant introductions are not an exact science; in fact, there have been very few zoos that have had the opportunity to do what we are attempting. By observing the elephants’ interactions with each other, we have been able to put a plan into place with the goal of getting all of the elephants at the Zoo together at some point. But when it comes to dealing with highly intelligent animals like elephants, we sometimes have to make changes on a daily basis. So stay tuned and visit often for the latest updates!
Here’s a video of the girls together.
Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read Ron’s previous post, Introducing Elephants.