Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Day in the Life of an Elephant

Name: Mara Eisenbarth
Class Year: 2017
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Internship: Animal Care Intern, Perth Zoo
Location: Perth, Western Australia

Hello again! 

So last time, I said I was going to talk about my experience with the elephants here at the Perth Zoo.  I want to talk only about the elephants in this post because Perth Zoo has a rare approach to elephant husbandry in this day and age.  First though, I'll introduce you to the Ellies! 

To start, there's Tricia.

As you can see from the birthday cake, she is 58 years old.  Tricia came from Singapore to the Perth Zoo in 1963 and is one of the oldest elephants being cared for by zoos in Australia.  

Then, there's Siput who is half Tricia's age at 25.  The two girls are best buds and just adorable together.  

What's special about the Ellies here in Perth, is that they are cared for through free contact. Free contact (in zoo terms) means that there is no protective barrier between you and the animal.  Obviously with an animal the size of an Asian elephant there has to be a fence between them and people right? Well, a lot of zoos (if not all) used to be free, or semi-free contact, until recently.  As safety risks are realized and fatal accidents occur, there is more and more pressure to have protected contact where the keeper and elephant interact through a barrier.  Either way can work, if the right procedures are followed.  

At Perth Zoo, they are fortunately able to take the two female elephants on a walk through the zoo a few mornings a week.  These walks are vital to the animals' health and just natural behavior of walking for most of the day.  The keepers use positive reinforcement to train the elephants and make sure they can perform most behaviors needed to care for them like foot checks and other procedures.  

So they have two female elephants, but they also have a male.  The bull elephant is under semi-free contact.  This means that most of the keepers (except one) never share the same space as the ellie, but they do interact with him through a barrier and can hand feed him.  Watching the keeper practice behaviors with the bull elephant was just amazing.  With just a few phrases she could have this elephant go across the yard, hold water in his trunk, stand on his back legs, and spray the water into the crowd.  And then he would happily come back to grab a few apples for his hard work.  

Before this bull elephant reached sexual maturity, they had free contact with him as well as the other girls.  But once bulls reach maturity, it's dangerous to continue to have free contact with them.  Unfortunately for the younger female, there won't be anymore elephant walks once Tricia passes away.  The young female is just a little too nervous to safely walk through the zoo without Tricia to keep her calm.  The 30 to 45 minute walks are just so beneficial for these amazing creatures who can walk 50 miles a day or more.  There are other ways to ensure captive elephants get enough exercise, but none that are practical for a zoo that is landlocked in a city.  

Anyway, my day with the Perth elephants was an amazing opportunity that I will always remember.  I learned so much from the dedicated keepers and who knows, maybe someday I can give that experience to another hopeful zookeeper. :) Thanks for reading. 

(Silup the male in the left picture; then me with Tricia on the left and Siput on the right) 

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