elephant Shaba


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.


Connie and Shaba Out and About

Connie, left, and Shaba check to see what goodies an enrichment item may hold.

When are elephants Connie and Shaba are going to be out in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey habitat (see post Welcome, Elephants Connie and Shaba). Actually, they have been out nearly every morning for the past month. When you will be able to see them? That is not an easy answer. Our focus has been to get them accustomed to the new yards, gates, sounds, smells, buses, and people at a pace that is comfortable for them. We can’t promise that you will see them at any particular time or in any particular place, but we are certainly making progress and meeting new goals every day.

We started with moving them out of the quarantine area to one of the larger areas at our Elephant Care Center. Up until that point, they could hear and smell the other elephants but had not seen them. Once they moved out, they could see the others but not have fence-line contact yet. The next step was to give them time in the big yard with the pool. We placed food throughout and allowed them to explore on their own. This is the part I think some of our guests were hoping to see: Connie and Shaba bursting out of their quarantine area into this huge yard to run and play. With older elephants that are unsure of their new surroundings, that scenario didn’t happen. Connie and Shaba have both been cautious when going into new areas, and they both react when there are loud noises or crowds around, so we don’t want to spring everything on them at once.

The first day out in the big yard, Shaba explored a little more than Connie, but not very much. They seemed pretty content to eat the closest food and then wait at the gate to go back into the facility. Every day they get a little braver and explore a little more. They come when called, and we walk them toward the pool. Shaba will go all the way down the yard, but Connie would rather not right now. That’s fine. We aren’t going to push her to go anywhere she doesn’t want to go. If you do come early in the morning and happen to see them out in the yard, you may see Shaba picking food out of the utility trees and Connie hanging out by the gate, waiting to go back inside.

Connie is in her mid-forties and doesn’t necessarily want to run around and play. We will give her every opportunity to do so, but so far she seems to like to pick one place to stand and wait for her keepers to give her more attention. She will be easy for you to spot as she has a head-bobbing habit that is pretty distinct from the typical gentle sway of older elephants. Connie has been doing it her whole life and is not likely to stop just because she is in a new place, so if you knew her in Tucson, you’ll recognize her here!

We have extended their time in the yard a little bit every day. At this point, they are usually out there when guests start to arrive and bus tours begin to go by. They are getting used to all the sights and sounds. We have also been able to bring them into the care center stalls and do their daily care routine in front of our guests almost every morning. We are watching their behavior closely and going at the pace they seem most comfortable with. We are excited to be able to show them off and to tell everyone all about them, and they seem to be doing very well with all the attention.
The most recent development is that Connie and Shaba have begun to have brief fence-line contact with Asian elephant Sumithi. We keep it brief so we can make detailed observations of the interactions and get a good idea of what future introductions will be like. We want to keep everything on a good note as much as we can. All three elephants were very interested in touching and smelling each other, which is very encouraging!

Connie and Shaba have been so much fun to get to know, and we are so pleased with the progress they have made! We will continue to try new things and extend the time they spend in different places and in contact with the other elephants. This means you may get a chance to see them very soon if you haven’t already, but where and when will always be determined by their level of comfort and the next step in getting them introduced to the rest of our herd.

Thank you for loving our elephants as much as we do and welcoming Connie and Shaba to their new home here at the San Diego Zoo!

Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.