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.


Extreme Volunteerism: Bighorn Sheep Count 2015


We watched for bighorn sheep—and this ewe watched us!

We were up before the sun in an effort to beat the heat. July temperatures in Anza Borrego Desert State Park can soar up to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. We had a little more than an hour’s hike ahead of us from our campsite to our count site in Cougar Canyon. Once we loaded our packs with enough water and supplies to carry us through the day, we were on the trail.

You might be wondering who would be crazy enough to willingly go desert backpacking during the hottest part of the summer. Those were my thoughts, before I became part of this brigade of citizen scientists who volunteer Fourth of July weekend every year to do just that. Our all-girl squad of mammal keepers from the Safari Park (Charlie Hyde, Mandi Makie, and myself) has been “counting sheep” for the past several years at this site. The Safari Park’s mammal department includes another team of counters who have been involved with the program for over 20 years—Gloria Kendall, Eileen Neff, and Michelle Gaffney are seasoned professionals when it comes to spotting sheep!


Bighorn sheep live in harsh, rugged terrain.

All of this hard work is an effort to conduct a census on the bighorn sheep population within Anza Borrego Desert State Park. These animal counts are critical in determining how effective recovery efforts are for this species.

With the count in its 45th year, the general trend has been an increase in the number of bighorn within the Peninsular Range. At one time numbers were as low as 400 animals. Although their population has climbed to around 955 animals at best, they are still extremely vulnerable due to habitat loss and fragmentation and disease from livestock.

While bighorn sheep can be seen year-round in the park, we get our most accurate counts from early to mid-summer. Not only does the hot weather drive the sheep down towards their watering holes, where volunteers are stationed nearby to count and identify the animals, but also enough time has elapsed since the lambing season that neonate mortality rates will not skew our numbers. This gives researchers the most realistic snapshot of the current bighorn sheep population in the park.


We nicknamed this young male “Blondie,” and his female companion “Dark Ewe.”

Once the team has safely reached the observation site, we sit quietly for the next 10 hours scanning the hillsides for any sign of movement. After nearly an hour, Charlie signaled that she’d spotted sheep. We all looked directly across the canyon where two individuals, an ewe and a young ram, had been sitting in the shade watching us the entire time. Clearly unfazed, they continued to rest for several hours before moving down the hillside. We saw this pair, nicknamed “Blondie” and “the Dark Ewe,” several times over the next three days.

In years past, our team has been lucky enough to encounter a desert tortoise each time we’ve camped near Cougar Canyon.  As we hiked out on our last day in the park, I worried that we wouldn’t encounter this elusive animal. When the air temperature and the sand heat up, these reptiles hunker down in their burrows to stay cool, not emerging until early evening. We were running out of time.


Bonus sighting: a big, beautiful desert tortoise!

Once we reached the last stretch of trail before our ascent into another canyon, I glanced to my right and spotted a large moving rock. Staring back at me was a big, beautiful desert tortoise! Unable to believe my eyes, I excitedly called to Mandi and Charlie to check it out. The tortoise had no obvious markings on it to suggest that it was an animal researchers were monitoring. It’s good to know that there is a tiny group of tortoises flourishing on their own in this inhospitable habitat. After we gave this little guy (or gal) a good once over so that we could share details of our encounter with park rangers, we were back on our sheep finding expedition.

Hours passed in the blistering heat on our final count day, and there were no sheep to be found. What a way to end our trip! We packed up and made our way back to camp, checking for tortoise burrows along the way, when a flash of movement caught my eye. Gracefully running across the valley wash was a herd of 11 bighorn sheep! Many of the individuals we had counted and nicknamed were in the group. There was “Dark Chocolate,” a beautiful ram who was over 11 years old; “Old Girl” and her two lady friends; as well as some other young males who were new to us. Altogether, we spotted 18 different bighorn sheep over the four-day weekend—a new best for our team.

With that incredible experience fresh in our minds, we ended our outdoor endurance test and headed back to the ranger station to tally the sheep numbers from all of the teams.

The overall total from all count sites was 253 bighorn sheep. This number fell short of what we’ve seen in the past few years, but it may be due to lack of volunteer sheep counters; not all observation areas were staffed.

Special thanks to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park Mammal Department for the support they offered this keeper team on our latest field excursion.

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog, Party Time: Leroy the Giraffe Turns One!


Elephant Antics

The Safari Park’s African elephant herd continues to thrive, and we are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Swazi’s second calf, which is due late July or early August. Look for physical changes in our matriarch as she prepares to welcome her baby.  Will son Macembe (Mac) be a good big brother? Time will tell, of course, but so far Mac is one super cool, laid-back kid. Like his mom, Mac has long legs and is a quick-learning and confident two year old.

You’d think that Umngani, mother of three, would have her trunk full taking care of her brood. Yet she has been spending her time lately enticing Msholo, our lone bull, to come hither! He, of course, is happy to play along, and there may be breeding between the two soon. Luckily for Umngani and her raging hormones, daughter Khosi, who is almost six years old, is more than willing to babysit younger brothers Ingadze and Neepo, freeing her mom to flirt with the handsome Msholo. Ingadze is now three years old and has been the kindest big brother to little brother Inhlonipho. Keepers describe Neepo as a wild, high-energy boy who will have his first birthday in September. Neepo loves to sound his little trumpet and chase the keepers along the exhibit’s fenceline. He has recently taken up a new talent: hopping!

Msholo has integrated very well with the herd. He is gentle with the little ones and attentive to the ladies. Even Ndula will occasionally interact with him, and she never interacted with Mabu (except during estrus and would then make him work!) Perhaps it’s because her oldest son, Vus’musi, has become best buddies with Msholo. The two play wrestle often, especially in the pool. Although he is much larger than Musi, now 8 years old, Msholo gets on the younger elephant’s level to help make the wrestling matches more even. What a guy! Ndula’s other son, Luti, is 2½ years old and has replaced his big brother as a momma’s boy. Keepers say Luti is shy and cautious about learning new things, although when he gets real excited, he hops on his rear legs, too!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Elephants Emanti and Kami.