Behind the Scenes at the Elephant Barn
Bath time with the elephants is a very important part of the day. Bathing the elephants allows keepers to visually inspect every part of the body and clean the skin while also providing important interaction and training opportunities. This serves to strengthen the bond between the handlers and the elephants. During bath time, keepers can also pay particular attention to the elephants’ feet, which receive regular inspections and care to make sure they remain healthy.
The typical bath means that each elephant gets a full rinse with warm water, to wet the skin completely and wash off any mud, and then gets a thorough scrub with specially formulated elephant wash soap. Every part of the body is scrubbed with soap before being rinsed again. Almost immediately after each bath, the elephants seek mud or dirt with which to coat their skin. This is very natural elephant behavior. Dirt and mud help keep an elephant cool on hot summer days and, acting as an exfoliant, keep dead skin from building up.
Taking care of an elephant’s feet is an important component in any elephant management program. Because an elephant’s feet are used constantly for walking, standing, and supporting its large body weight, healthy feet are essential to a healthy elephant. Each foot has a callous-like pad on the bottom and nails for each toe. The number of nails found on each foot depends on the elephant: four or five nails on the front feet and three or four nails on the back feet.
Elephant keepers at The Maryland Zoo check every foot and nail on every elephant on a daily basis. Foot care follows a weekly schedule that guarantees that all four feet will receive a pad trim and nail file once a month. The pad trim and nail file are a non-invasive husbandry practice that the elephants are trained to accept and respond to. This allows keepers to better care for the elephants’ health. The elephant rests the weight of its foot on a specially designed foot stool that takes any strain off the foot during the husbandry process.
Foot care consists of trimming a very small layer of pad on the bottom of the foot with a hoof knife. A hoof knife is a tool used in the care of horses’ hooves. The pad trim allows the keeper to check for any foreign objects or unusual defects that may be present or may develop in the foot. Foot care also consists of filing the nails lightly with a hoof rasp. A hoof rasp is also a tool used in the care of horses’ hooves. The nail is filed and shaped so that the nail front is rounded smoothly and naturally. This helps prevent the elephant from chipping or tearing the nail and prevents unnecessary overgrowth of the nail.
Keeping consistent records of animal weights is an important tool for keepers. It helps to quantify physical changes the animal may experience throughout the year. Weight can be affected by many things: food quality, activity levels, sickness, time of year, eating habits, etc. It is important that every animal maintain a healthy diet and good exercise routines, and evaluating the animal’s weight helps to gauge this.
Weighing an elephant is accomplished through the use of a well trained behavior. Large scales designed for weighing trucks are used. The truck scales are 1½ feet square and two inches high, and are large enough to fit an elephant foot firmly and squarely in the center. The elephant is asked to step onto the scale using one front foot and the opposing rear foot. The elephant is trained to lift up the two feet that are not on a scale so that the elephant’s weight is evenly distributed between the two scales. The weights from each scale are added together, thereby providing an accurate weight measure. The elephants are weighed and the results recorded once a week. It is not unusual for an elephant to gain or lose over 100 pounds a week. This can be based solely on the amount of water the elephant has ingested just before the time of weighing.
Watching what you eat? So are the elephants! Veterinary and animal staff at The Maryland Zoo work hard to insure that the elephants have the best diet possible. African elephants are the largest herbivores on earth, and they are generalized feeders. This means that they can eat a wide variety of plants and can eat every part of the plant. This is how elephants developed into such large animals.
Being able to eat so many different things made them able to exploit niches other animals could not. And since they can eat the woody parts of a plant, they have access to a year-round food supply that no other mammal can digest. Elephants have digestive tracts similar to horses: an enlarged colon that contains bacteria. The bacteria work to break down the plant material for the elephant. Unlike other mammals, elephants digest less than half of what they ingest. If they eat foods that are too low in fiber and too easy to digest, they can get sick or become obese. Elephants also drink between 20 and 40 gallons of water per day, which helps them move their dry diet through their digestive tracts.
Adult African elephants should eat about 1.5% of their body weight in food every day. For an 8,000 pound animal, this means eating at least 120 pounds of food per day. Growing calves need to eat more food proportionally than adults. Calves ingest mostly milk from their mothers until they are two to three years old. After six months of age, they also begin to eat plant material, sampling the same foods they see other members of the herd eating.
At the Zoo, hay is the foundation of the elephant’s diet and makes up the largest percentage of what they eat. Specially formulated grain is also given to the elephants to make sure that they are getting any vitamins or nutrients that may be lacking in the hay. Both hay and grain at the Zoo are frequently analyzed to insure that they contain the correct nutritional content. The elephant staff also visually inspects the hay before feeding it for things like odor, foreign material, sun damage, and maturity. The remainder of the elephants’ diet is made up of produce, beet pulp, Vitamin E, browse, and supplements.
Produce: The elephants receive carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges and apples as part of their daily diet. They also eat novel produce such as pineapple, onions or papaya, ordered weekly as enrichment. Just like people, they have favorite fruits and vegetables and tend to prefer the sweet fruits to the green vegetables.
Beet Pulp: Beet pulp is given to increase the elephants’ fiber intake.
Vitamin E: Liquid Vitamin E is given to the elephants every day. The right concentration of this vitamin is important. It helps prevent internal lesions, muscular abnormalities, and liver and kidney problems, and helps with normal fetal development and good hair and skin condition.
Browse: Browse is one of the elephants’ favorite foods. They can eat every part of a tree and can completely consume logs the width of a baseball bat. At The Maryland Zoo, the elephants frequently receive tulip poplar, mulberry, and beech. Other trees, including oak, cherry and some pines are considered toxic to elephants and are not fed as browse.
Supplements: Since elephants are so big and their joints support so much weight, they are given a daily joint supplement to help prevent problems. They also receive mineral salt every day to provide them with trace nutrients not provided elsewhere in their diet.
The Maryland Zoo staff monitors the elephants’ diet very carefully. Please do your part by not throwing food into the exhibit.
In recent decades, the role of elephant keepers in zoos has shifted. While it has long been the purpose of successful elephant programs to provide for the physical and nutritional health of its elephants, good programs now also take into account the psychological well being of their elephants.
Zoo goers have come to expect to see elephants behaving as they would in the wild, in an environment similar to natural elephant habitat. Environmental enrichment is one way to meet this goal. The main ideas behind enrichment are to enhance the elephants’ environment in a way that will increase opportunities for natural behaviors in the animals and provide them with some variation in their daily lives.
Enrichment is widespread in zoos and is becoming more so as its importance is acknowledged. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) now expects its members to have extensive environmental enrichment programs and to stay current with new ideas in the field by devoting resources to sending staff members to conferences and workshops. The Zoo has always supported this goal strongly, and our staff is eager and excited to learn more to improve their knowledge.
Enriching elephants can be both easy and challenging. Since elephants are highly social animals, they are greatly stimulated by interactions with other members of their herd, and, to a degree, with their keepers. The Maryland Zoo has a free-contact system of training that allows keepers to spend lots of time during the day in direct contact with the elephants. Keepers engage the elephants in husbandry activities, such as acquiring weights, doing footwork, and giving baths, throughout the day. This keeps the routine varied and the elephants occupied with complex training tasks.
Coming up with ways to keep some of the largest, strongest, smartest animals on earth busy and challenged can also be a daunting task. Keepers are constantly coming up with new ideas and evaluating the success of each one. Daily records are kept so that the elephant staff can track the activities that the elephants engaged in each day and assess which ones provided the most interaction.
Enrichment is a year-round activity but can vary by season.
During the winter, the elephants might spend a small portion of the day inside to stay warm. Enrichment is especially important to keep them busy. Keepers spend time performing detailed husbandry routines and training challenging new behaviors. When the elephants go outside, they enjoy playing with toys in the yard and investigating any ice and snow in their exhibit.
In the spring, the elephants are busy keeping the many kinds of browse growing around their exhibit neatly trimmed. Keepers order novel produce in season during these months, hiding it around the yard to encourage foraging or putting it in hanging hay nets for the elephants to find at night. The Zoo reopens to the public in March after being closed for two months in the winter, affording the elephants opportunities for public interactions.
The elephants are occupied with staying cool in the summer just like their visitors. They make good use of the mud wallow and big pool in their exhibit. They also enjoy ice treats with produce, alfalfa, or sugar-free drink mixes frozen inside. Throughout the summer, music can be heard from festivals in the surrounding park and from the CD player in the barn that the keepers operate at night, providing auditory enrichment. Also during the summer, keepers maintain the herb garden planted near the exhibit. This garden was created to provide rosemary, oregano, chocolate mint, lemon basil, jasmine, and other herbs all year round, giving the elephants novel scent experiences.
Fall brings the annual Halloween Pumpkin Smash, along with the slightly cooler temperatures. The elephants are most active during the fall. They can be found taking long walks with their keepers, chasing each other in play behaviors, and playing with the tires, logs, and balls in their yard. When they finally take a rest, there are plenty of falling leaves to eat to keep them occupied. In the mornings, they rush around their yard trying to eat the leaves that dropped during the night.
In the wild, elephants often walk many miles a day in search of food and water. At the Zoo, the elephants’ diet is specially prepared and delivered to them. They don’t need to wander in search of food, yet exercise is still vitally important to their physical and mental well-being. Training allows the keepers to exercise the elephants regularly.
At The Maryland Zoo, the elephants exercise during regular walks and through muscle stretching exercises. Usually a minimum of two long walks are completed on a daily basis. Walking helps the elephants maintain weight, muscle tone, and joint flexibility. This is critical to their overall health. Walking on and over different types of substrates also helps the elephants to wear down the pads and nails on their feet just as they would in the wild. This normal wear on the pads and nails helps to keep elephant feet healthy.
Throughout the day, the elephants also participate in numerous training sessions with their keepers that provide exercise through specific drills. (Please read the next section on How we train our elephants for more information on the drill sessions.) The elephants also get exercise through play behaviors such as swimming and interaction with enrichment items like swinging a tire back and forth, lifting logs to strip bark, digging in the ground with their feet, and standing on the exhibit fencing while stretching to reach leaves and branches.
Exercise and training sessions also help the elephants stay mentally active and healthy. The daily walks and training sessions provide mental stimulation. They have to think through the sessions, engage in problem solving behaviors, and respond accordingly. Exercise and training sessions also help foster familiarity and comfort between elephant and keeper, something that is very important when taking care of elephants.
The elephant section of this site was made possible by a gift from C.J. Miller LLC