elephant odyssey


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.


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, Elephant Mila

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Mila attempts to get some treats from a food puzzle.

Happy New Year, everyone! It has been some time since you have heard from us at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, and it is for good reason. As always, we have been very busy caring for our herd of elephants; we hope many of you have had the opportunity to stop by recently and witness that care first hand. Our elephant team at the Zoo specializes in the care of aging elephants, and since the opening of our exhibit in 2009, we have had the privilege of extending that care to 11 individuals. Most recently, Elephant Odyssey has been home to six African and Asian elephants, with the opportunity to open our doors and provide sanctuary for other older elephants. We are very proud to say that on November 14, 2013, our herd grew a little bigger (by about 8,000 pounds or over 3,600 kilograms!) as we welcomed Mila, a 41-year-old female African elephant, into the family.

Mila’s story happens to be quite interesting. She traveled all the way from New Zealand, where she lived for more than 30 years. For the last four years, Mila lived at the Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary just south of Auckland, where a team of dedicated keepers and supporters worked hard to find her a new home. Unfortunately, it was never an option to keep Mila in New Zealand as there happens to be only one other elephant in the entire country, and the two of them had never met. It was the goal of the Franklin Zoo Charitable Trust to send her to a home that could provide Mila the opportunity to be social with other elephants. The San Diego Zoo happened to be the best option for Mila to live out the rest of her life. After a year of planning and preparations, Mila traveled inside a custom-made 15,000-pound (6,800 kilograms) steel crate by cargo plane more than 6,500 miles (10,400 kilometers) from Auckland to Los Angeles. She was then transported in a flatbed semi-truck with a police escort to the San Diego Zoo, where she unloaded into our Care Center with ease. More than 20 people, including Franklin Zoo and San Diego Zoo staff, accompanied Mila on her monumental journey half-way across the world.

For now, Mila is in the middle of her mandatory quarantine period, a six- to nine-week stay inside the Special Needs Facility of the Conrad Preby’s Elephant Care Center. Quarantine is a routine procedure where all new animal residents to the Zoo and Safari Park are cared for separately from the rest of the animal collection to make sure there is no present sickness, disease, or vector they can transmit to the existing animal population. Mila’s quarantine period is especially important because she must also be tested for tuberculosis, an infectious respiratory disease that can infect both humans and elephants.

Testing elephants for this disease is mandatory every year as regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the process is noninvasive. We simply train the elephants for what we call a trunk wash. The training is done through simple desensitization, having the elephants accept a saline solution poured into the nostrils of the trunk. The elephant is cued to raise its trunk up in the air for a minimum of 15 seconds before dropping it lower to blow the saline into a sterilized bag. Because this disease generally affects the lungs, and elephants breathe mostly through their trunk, the trunk wash ensures that if any bacteria is present, it should wash out with the saline. Mila was tested in New Zealand prior to her departure and was again tested three times over a three-day period immediately after she arrived. It usually takes a minimum of six weeks for the results to return to the Zoo, as the samples must be allowed to grow inside a sterile lab environment.

While we wait for the results, I am happy to report that Mila’s transition to her new home with us has gone incredibly well, and she has exceeded all of our expectations. Since Day One, Elephant Team members Ann, Scott, and I have been taking care of Mila. We have been working on creating an important trust-based relationships with her so we can prepare Mila for her shift into the rest of the Elephant Care Center and exhibit before she meets the other female elephants. Mila has proven to be very smart and adaptable, which only reinforces our decision to bring her here to the San Diego Zoo and give her the chance to meet other elephants. After living the last 35 years of her life without the company of other elephants, only time will tell how easy it will be for her to integrate into our existing herd.

For the remainder of her quarantine period, we will continue to acclimate her to our daily care routine, training, and staff. Mila will remain off public view for a few more weeks, but we are hopeful that you will give her a warm welcome when she makes her public debut in the future. In the meantime, make sure you stop by to see the other six elephants we have at the Zoo. They are always happy to see you!

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Elephant Shaba Meets the Girls

The elephants of Elephant Odyssey

The elephants of Elephant Odyssey

It has been almost a year since Shaba made her trip from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona (see post Elephant Moves) to her new home in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Shaba is a 33-year-old African female who had lived at Reid Park her entire life with her best friend, Connie, an Asian elephant, who passed away from cancer about 5 months after their arrival here (see post Elephant ICU Loses a Member). Since then, we have been working hard to get Shaba acclimated to Elephant Odyssey and to the other four females who live here. They are Mary, a 49-year-old Asian elephant who is the herd’s matriarch, Sumithi, a 46-year-old Asian elephant, Tembo, a 42-year-old African elephant, and Devi, a 36-year-old Asian elephant.

Shaba is a very sweet elephant and works well with her keepers, but she had never been around any other elephants except Connie. We knew it was important for her to get to know everyone quickly, because she needed the socialization that all female elephants require. Our plan was to start her out with an introduction to Mary and then slowly introduce her to Sumithi, Devi, and lastly, Tembo. The initial introduction to Mary went very well—Mary told her who was boss and Shaba accepted that right away! Then it was just a matter of the two getting to know each other. Mary was really good about defining Shaba’s place in Mary’s yard—“all the food is mine, and I will let you have some of it.”

As time went by, the two started spending nights together, and we could see that Shaba was very happy to be around Mary; in turn, Mary was very tolerant of the newbie. After several weeks, we included Sumithi into the group. It also went well as long as Shaba did not get too close to Sumithi’s food. Sumithi would remind Shaba of this by chasing her around the yard. This was pretty funny, because Shaba could really run, and at best, Sumithi could work up a slow saunter. Sumithi got her point across, though, and the three became a workable group pretty quickly. They, too, started spending nights together and all went well.

Then it was Devi’s turn. It was going to be interesting, because Devi had, in the past, gone after the new elephants with a reckless abandon. This never worked out for her, but she tried. When she was put into the group of Mary, Sumithi, and Shaba, Devi was immediately on the defensive. She ran right away from Shaba, who wasn’t sure how to react. No elephant had ever run from her before! Shaba slowly worked her way over to Devi and touched her, and Devi submitted right away. Shaba then spent the next several weeks getting to know Devi, standing next to her, eating from the same spot, and if one of the other elephants started to chase Shaba, she would seek Devi out and use her as a comfort zone.

This went on for several weeks, and then it was time to introduce Tembo. This was a big deal because Tembo likes to charge now, ask questions later. We were prepared for any problems; it was all hands on deck for the elephant staff. We let Tembo into the yard with the other four girls, and she immediately went to the food and started to eat. She basically paid no attention to Shaba, although Shaba was keeping a close eye on her. It went very well for a while, and then Shaba approached Tembo, and Tembo chased her all over the yard. Luckily, Shaba is a lot faster than Tembo and ran away from her. Tembo ran out of steam pretty quickly, and all settled down. These days, the new group is still establishing itself, but Shaba has learned to move out of the way when Tembo comes near. You can see all of our female elephants together in the morning and afternoon. We still have not kept them all together overnight, but that is the next goal of ours.

Shaba has settled in very well. She looks to Mary now as her protector and companion. She gets along pretty well with all the other elephants, but when one decides to get a little pushy, which happens in elephant herds, she immediately runs to Mary. At night, we keep Mary and Shaba together, and we have even witnessed both of them lying side by side at night to sleep. This is GOOD! We will continue to monitor the females as we head into the future, and the future looks really bright for our female herd at Elephant Odyssey.

Ron Ringer is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Elephant Ranchipur: Healing Nicely.


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.


Elephant Shaba: Introductions

Mary, left, and Shaba

It has been over a month now since we began introductions with elephants Shaba and Mary at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey (see post Shaba’s Next Step). The progress has been steady and encouraging. Shaba and Mary first met each other through a fence. We observed their interactions to get a better idea of what to expect when they would be in the same yard together. These fence-line introductions lasted for almost a week, getting longer each day until the two could be in adjacent yards overnight.

Mary didn’t seem very interested in being aggressive with Shaba through the fence. In fact, if there was food anywhere in the yard, Mary didn’t seem interested in Shaba at all! But Shaba was interested in Mary and initiated most of the contact between them. At night, when they had adjacent yards, Mary chose to sleep on the opposite side of her yard, far from the shared fence and closer to Sumithi, Devi, and Tembo, while Shaba slept close to the shared fence. Mary seemed to be drawn to what was comfortable and familiar to her, and Shaba seemed to be reaching out to establish new companionship.

Encouraged by the positive interactions and lack of aggression we saw, we moved to the next step. We began with Shaba and Mary together in our largest yard with small amounts of food placed throughout. Mary was more concerned with the food than she was with Shaba. Shaba followed Mary around and initiated most of the contact. From time to time, Mary would have enough of her new shadow and put her very quickly in her place. To do that, Mary would chase Shaba and give her a fairly good push.

Any time we do introductions, we have keepers placed all around the yard taking notes, filming, observing, and ready to break up any fight that looks like it could get out of hand. What can we possibly do to stop two massive animals from fighting? It’s amazing what some loud noise can do to get their attention! After that, we call them to separate ends of the yard and give them their space. Happily, we never had to interfere with Shaba and Mary. Shaba has good instinct. When Mary pushed, she braced herself and waited it out. Running away only makes a more dominant elephant want to chase, so standing still makes the aggression get boring pretty fast. Eventually, their interactions turned into gentle touches and even some instances of eating side by side from the same feeder. Mary is not one to share her food, so that was a big deal!

Once we were certain that Shaba and Mary could get along well in the same yard, we brought Sumithi (Smitty, as we affectionately call her) into the adjacent yard for a concurrent fence-line introduction. Shaba and Mary were still together, but Shaba had the choice of interacting with Mary in the yard or visiting Smitty at the fence. She balanced her time fairly evenly between them. Shaba seems eager to make new friends. Smitty, on the other hand, was more eager to let Shaba know who was going to be the boss. She spent much more time at the fence than Mary had and initiated more contact in the form of pokes and jabs. Nothing serious, just something a human child might do to a sibling just to be annoying. Shaba would leave when she had her fill but never stayed away for very long.

On August 16, we began introductions with Mary, Smitty, and Shaba together in the yard. Again we had food spread out and had keepers stationed all around. These introductions have been a little less peaceful than the previous ones. Smitty does more chasing and pushing than Mary did. We’ve seen some interesting behavior from Mary. A few times, she made her way over to stand between Smitty and Shaba when Smitty was pushing, and other times she joined in. For the most part, though, Mary stays out of it, more involved in feeding herself than policing anything.

The pushing and shoving is perfectly normal. Elephants live in a hierarchy. Each one is dominant or submissive depending on which other elephants are around. We need to give them opportunities to establish their dominance and settle into a comfortable herd structure so that we can start leaving them together for longer periods of time and eventually have a complete, cohesive herd of female elephants. It just might take awhile for everyone to find their place.

We will continue introductions with Shaba, Smitty, and Mary for awhile before we go to the next step, which will be fence-line contact with Tembo and/or Devi. Their behavior and level of comfort will be the determining factors. Generally, we do introductions first thing in the morning, so feel free to stop by and observe with us! We’re happy to point out “who’s who” in the yard and tell you what has been happening. So far we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve seen in such a short time.

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Lions: The Good Life

M’Bari: It’s good to be king!

We’ve had a lot of interest in an update on the San Diego Zoo’s largest felid pair, and since we just passed the three-year anniversary for the two lions here, it seemed like an appropriate time. When I think about the last few years for M’Bari and Etosha, the phrase “smooth sailing” comes to mind (see The Pride of Elephant Odyssey). The last three years with these two have been pretty tranquil. More than anyone, I think that the lions have enjoyed the quiet constants in their lives. At nearly nine years old, much of the playful behaviors of their days at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Lion Camp have been replaced with more mature endeavors.

M’Bari is a guy who appreciates his routine. As a creature of habit myself, I often feel a kinship with his way of life. His time spent on exhibit involves copious amounts of sleep broken up by the occasional need to eat, drink, or remind all of his adoring fans that he is big and you are in his house. During Nighttime Zoo, our guests get a special treat as he wakes from his slumber to enjoy his evening stroll. His evening routine includes patrolling his territory, calling loudly, and scent marking anything (or anyone) unlucky enough to get in his path.

M’Bari is maintaining much of the great husbandry behaviors he learned as a little guy through daily training sessions. He recently received his necessary vaccinations through a voluntary process in which he places his hip up against the fence to accept an injection. M’Bari is a great student…as long as you remember that he is the KING.

Etosha is definitely my choice for Miss Congeniality. This girl is as sweet as pie! Etosha is always happy to see her keepers, and she is always happy to see food. Her daily training sessions are met with great enthusiasm as she works to get the treats from the bucket to her mouth as quickly as possible. Etosha is also a champion sleeper, but she does take the opportunity to get a rise out of M’Bari from time to time. Particularly just following morning feedings, we see her rambunctious side come out. She stalks slowly toward M’Bari, creeping around the rockwork, and as quickly as her legs will take her, she rushes in and jumps on his back. M’Bari, feeling way too dignified for this kind of play, shuts these sessions down quickly by moving away and giving a little growl.

After three years working with Etosha, I am still amazed at just how well she can read her long-time mate. I often tell guests that we can read M’Bari pretty well, but Etosha can read him like a book. She always knows just how much she can get away with. Whether it be jumping on his back, choosing to lie down right in his spot, or pushing him aside to get to treats, she knows what he will tolerate and when she should lay low.

I would like to invite you all to come by and spend some time with M’Bari and Etosha. Whether you catch a feeding, a quick play session, or silent slumber, you will surely take away a sense of awe and maybe even a reminder to enjoy the quiet constants in your own life.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguar Cubs at One Month.


Jaguar Cubs at Last!

Welcome, little jaguars!

About one year ago I wrote a blog post titled Jaguars: The Next Step. We had just recently introduced the San Diego Zoo’s jaguars with the hope of producing some much-needed cubs. As it turns out, the next step was the first step in a rollercoaster year that included hundreds of hours of behavioral observation, collection of more fecal samples than I care to remember, lots of amazing moments between the cats, and the heartbreak of an unsuccessful litter born in October.

Hold still! Each cub received a quick exam, including a weigh-in.

Over the course of the year we compiled a huge amount of jaguar data, some of which will be shared with other zoos all over the world to improve zoo-based breeding of this endangered cat. We saw our young, small Nindiri grow into an adult female, trading in some of her playful ways for more mature endeavors. We saw Guapo grow into a more confident animal as he figured out just how to get along with our always-spicy Nindiri. It was a year of many firsts for our jaguar friends and their keepers. We also achieved another milestone, something that we haven’t seen in San Diego for more than 20 years.

I have the privilege of announcing that a year’s worth of hard work, patience, and a major cooperative effort by people and jaguar has paid off. On April 26, Nindiri gave birth to two healthy, thriving little cubs, the first surviving jaguar cubs born at the San Diego Zoo since 1989. She quickly proved that she really has what it takes to be a great mother. Nindiri has been extremely attentive, opting to stay in her den box with her cubs nearly 24 hours a day. The few minutes away that she does take involve grabbing a few mouthfuls of food, a quick drink of water, and then back to her duties as mother.

There are some well-deserved privileges to being a jaguar keeper!

Our first official exam took place on their fourth day of life and involved getting a weight and a very quick all-over check by one of our vets. Much to my surprise, their eyes were already open. I hadn’t expected this to happen until they were at least a week old. Both cubs passed their quick exam with flying colors. The exam also gave us an early glimpse into personality. The first cub examined displayed some Nindiri-like attitude, hissing at me as I gently picked it up—a girl! The second cub, a boy, was quiet throughout the exam and seemed much less bothered by our imposition. Cleary cub #2 got his personality from Dad.

In the coming weeks will come the eating of solid foods, learning about our visitors, swimming lessons, figuring out how to get up into trees and—more importantly—just how to get down, and many, many other lessons that a jaguar cub must learn. Nindiri’s duties will continue to change throughout their many stages of life, and she has much to teach. It turns out that with these new cubs we are embarking on a new Next Step. A step toward a new, more maternal Nindiri. A step toward the next generation of jaguars. A step toward the conservation of this amazing species and ultimately a brighter future for the breeding of jaguars in our much-needed breeding programs. This next year will be another year of firsts, and I hope that you will share it with us.

Our new little residents will be off exhibit for a while, but look for them in Elephant Odyssey in the not-too-distant future.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Zoo Conference: AZA.


Elephant Moves

Elephants Connie (in front) and Shaba at their new home at the San Diego Zoo.

Many people have been asking why we conducted such a large-scale, multi-zoo, multi-elephant transfer. It is an appropriate question. This operation has been in planning for several years. It begins with the original rescue of the elephant herd from a scheduled cull in Swaziland back in 2003. Our plan was to prevent the elephants from being killed, to protect the land and help other species by removing the elephants, and to improve the reproductive potential of African elephants in North American zoos. We succeeded in all three.

When the African elephant breeding program at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park started becoming successful, we began to consider how to best manage a growing population. We wanted to maintain female calves with their mothers for life and male calves until adolescence; this is natural in the wild, but not the norm in zoo populations. Typically in the wild, if a herd becomes too numerous it will split down matrilineal lines, and new bulls will sire future offspring. To do the same, we needed to identify a zoo that could be the recipient of roughly half of our herd’s females, their offspring, and the most appropriate bull. This facility needed to have a state-of-the-art facility, well-trained staff, appropriate climate, management program that mirrored the one our elephants were already used to, and be relatively close to San Diego. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, worked very hard over several years to meet those criteria.

We chose to send to Reid Park a breeding group of elephants to their brand-new elephant facility and receive from them their two elephants, Connie and Shaba, into our Elephant Odyssey facility at the San Diego Zoo, where we specialize in caring for older elephants.
The selection of the best animals to send to the Reid Park Zoo was very difficult, and not just because of the close relationship we have developed with all of them. The decision had to balance various factors: who created the best social group in Tucson and in San Diego, what demographic and genetic factors were most important, and who are the best trained elephants in the herd. In the end, the decision was made to send Mabu, Lungile, Litsemba and her two calves, five-year-old Impunga and one-year-old Tsandzikle (Sundzu). This move was made in the best interest of the individual elephants and for the species as a whole.

Now that the transfer is complete, we hope that more African elephant calves will be born at both facilities combined than would have been born at just the San Diego Zoo Safari Park if the move hadn’t occurred. All of this effort is, of course, simply to ensure the survival of this amazing species.

Jeff Andrews is an associate curator of mammals for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, How Far Do Elephants Walk in One Day?


Saying Goodbye to Cha Cha and Cookie

Cha Cha

We would like to thank everyone for your well wishes and support. These past two weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for us. Losing one of our elephants is similar to losing a family member. Cha Cha and Cookie will be remembered and missed every day.

For many of you, you’ll remember Cha Cha from her days at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Cha Cha’s always-sweet demeanor was apparent, even from a seat in the stands. For the keepers, Cha Cha was always a joy to work with. She was extremely social with all of us and enjoyed her one-on-one time above all. On a regular basis, Cha Cha would choose affection over food for her reward. She loved to have her tongue scratched and to smell our breath.

In recent times, Cha Cha made friends with Sumithi and Devi. The girls would hang out in the large yard at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, eating and socializing, with an occasional swim in the pool. Cha Cha would even use Sumithi as a scratching post! Cha Cha’s best buddy was the least likely one in the herd, Ranchipur. The two of them would walk around the yard together, never too far apart. Both would share their food, and Ranchipur would even eat the food Cha Cha tossed on her back. Despite her smaller size, Cha Cha was able to push Ranchipur around, and he, being the easygoing guy that he is, allowed it.

Not too long ago, a guest’s straw hat was blown into the elephant yard; elephants being elephants, the hat was only likely to return in 24 to 48 hours, if you know what I mean, looking and smelling a bit worse! Luckily, Cha Cha was the one in the yard at the time. One of her long-time keepers simply asked her to “pick it up” (a behavior that all of the females know). Cha Cha then crossed the yard, picked up the hat, and brought it over. The guest got the whole thing on film.

Those of us who were lucky enough to meet her will always remember Cha Cha’s sweet disposition and her silly eccentricities. She was definitely a character!


Cookie also hailed from the Safari park. She seemed to really enjoy the “fun” behaviors that we asked of her. She loved catching flying celery in the air and would perk her ears forward when we would ask her questions, to which she would respond with a head shaking “no” or an enthusiastic “yes.” Cookie loved her ears scratched and, strangely enough, really enjoyed the roof of her mouth scratched. On warm afternoons, Cookie could be seen napping in the warm sun. She frequently came over to her keepers for scratches and attention, and if we got the right spot, she would start squeaking in excitement.

Cookie’s silly personality could especially be seen when she was with her longtime best friend, Mary. When the two of them would be reunited after being separated (even if it was only for 15 minutes), both would make rumbling noises, happy squeaks, and flap their ears, as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages! During training sessions, Cookie was always a willing participant. She enjoyed learning new things and was a very quick study. When faced with a situation she was unsure about, Cookie would look to her keepers for reassurance, and after receiving encouraging words, she would then continue to give it her best shot.

Cookie loved affection but really loved her food. A simple pellet toy (a very sturdy, or disposable plastic toy with holes drilled in it to allow alfalfa pellets to fall out) could entertain her for hours. She also loved digging in fresh dirt piles, trying to find the buried treats. Some of the most memorable times with Cookie were during swim sessions in the pool at the Safari Park. Cookie and Mary would go in together, dunk their heads under water, and play like little kids do in the pool during summer. They both were always very vocal and would squeak and rumble the whole time. After their swim time, each would enthusiastically cover her whole body with fresh dirt. Sometimes Mary would plop down on a fresh pile of dirt for a short nap in the sun. Cookie would always stand over her, watching over her buddy.

At 56 years old, Cookie had seen it all! She probably would have called us “Kid” or “Junior” if she could have. She was a great teacher and truly showed us how intelligent elephants really are. Cookie’s quirky personality and wonderful “happy” noises will be forever missed. She really was a true gem.

Mary has been doing very well since Cookie’s death and getting extra attention from the keepers. She is spending her time with Tembo, Sumithi, and Devi and seems to be acclimating.

Lindsey Kraal is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.