Sunday, February 23, 2014

Everything Elephant

I recently joined a wonderful organization called Local First Arizona, and through them I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes of the elephant exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo!  I wasn't sure what to expect.  In my mind I thought I would be hanging out with the elephants, side by side, petting them, maybe riding them.  That is not even close to the experience I had...but what an informative experience it was!

Sheena on exhibit
First of all, the Phoenix Zoo currently houses three female Asian elephants who are "rescue" elephants from the circus.  Their names are Indu, Sheena, and Reba.  Typically, female elephants get along in the wild.  However, perhaps due to their abusive backgrounds, these three do not get along, so they are kept separate at the zoo but still able to have contact with one another.  On the day we were visiting Sheena was in the exhibit (on display to the public), and Reba and Indu were in the back where we were able to interact with them.

Our guide was elephant-keeper, Corey; I will do my best to recount all that she taught us!

Elephants do lie down to sleep, but only for about 2 to 4 hours at a time. They are so heavy that their own weight begins to crush their organs so they have to get up and at least turn if not stay up.  In the recent past most zoo's had their elephants sleeping on concrete.  The Phoenix Zoo is among the first to bring in a special kind of sand for the elephants to sleep on.  Much more comfortable than cement, right?!  The keepers have to shovel out the wet spots on a daily basis and put fans on the sand to help dry it out.  They also haul the sand outside to dry out for weeks at a time and put new sand inside.  Lots of hard work to keep these elephants comfy!

A little blurry...but to the right of the shovel is an elephant butt print from the previous night's sleep

Next Corey showed us the "crusher".  This is a set of bars that they can tighten up to the elephant's body when they need to do injections or weigh them.  The elephants are walked through these bars every single day just so they are used to going inside of them.  There is a scale on the floor that can weigh these 8000 pound animals!  Corey mentioned that one of the elephants had lost 800 pounds and they didn't notice until the scales showed them.  Can you imagine not noticing an 800 pound weight loss?! 

Kimber, founder of Local First Arizona, and Corey, elephant keeper outside of the "crusher"

We were next led into a sort of room where the keepers do husbandry on the elephants on a daily basis.  The elephants are brought into the main portion of the room and bathed and have their feet soaked in Epsom Salts (because they have abscesses).  Corey said that if any of the elephants aren't feeling up to a bath or a foot soak on any given day the keepers do not force the issue.  The overall feeling is that these girls have had a hard enough life being forced to do things against their will...this is now their time to live the life they want. (Here is a link to Corey bathing Sheena Using Google Glass while bathing Sheena the elephant)

Corey in front of the eye and foot doors
  After a nice bath and foot soak the girls are led into another type of cage with two little doors.  In here the keepers can use one (larger) door to check the elephants' eyes and ears and one (smaller, lower) door to check their feet.  They get their nails trimmed one foot per week.  Again, they are led through this cage every day so that they are used to the confinement.  The keepers even do fake blood draws on the elephants every day so that it's easier when they have to do true blood draws (which are every two weeks).  The keepers rub the back of the elephants' ears with alcohol and then poke their finger behind their ears and wipe again with alcohol.  While it's a great idea to keep them used to the blood draws, Corey laughed that they are likely giving the elephants too little credit...she knows the girls are not fooled by the finger poke...they are very smart; not to mention that whole 'memory of an elephant' thing!

On our way out to meet Indu and Reba, Corey showed us a tooth that one of them had lost.  Remember the 800 pound weight loss?  It was due to a lost tooth that kept one of the girls from being able to eat as much.  Typically their teeth break and fall out in pieces; but this one came out all at once.  We got to hold was really heavy!  I would guess around 20 pounds.

Me feeding Reba
 Finally we got to meet Indu and Reba.  Of the three, Reba is the most aggressive. She has bitten the ends of the tails off the other two girls. She even killed one of her trainers before coming to the Phoenix Zoo.  So, my idea of being up close and personal was a crazy one!  I mean, we were close, but with bars in between.  First we got to feed Reba; she loved the attention and even made a little roar when we stopped feeding her.  Then we got to feed sweet Indu.  She tried to give us pieces of straw in exchange for more food.  She whined when we stopped feeding her and even tried to do little tricks like putting her trunk up really high for us. (When all three elephants arrived at the Phoenix Zoo they had been fed on the ground for so long that they didn't have strength in their trunk muscles to lift their trunks.The zookeepers began slowly raising the height on their food until,eventually, their trunk muscles were strong enough to lift above their heads).

Indu...the stuff on the ground was her offering to us in exchange for more snacks!

At one point Indu loved the attention so much she threatened to spray us with water!  She got a trunk full of water from her trough and acted like she was gong to spray...we all took 10 steps backward and Corey told her "No" and she just let out a gentle stream of water instead.  We all laughed which encouraged her to do this trick 2 or 3 more times. 

It was so eye-opening to hear how these elephants have been cared for here at the Phoenix Zoo.  Corey and her co-workers do a lot of hard work every day to keep these girls in good shape and keep them comfortable in their old age (they are all in their 40's and elephants can live into their 60's). It was an experience I won't soon forget.

And before leaving I, of course, checked out the rest of the zoo. 

Squirrel monkey encounter...always my favorite!

This guy had his face right up against the glass

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours

Squirrel monkeys just hanging out

What did the fox say?!

Nap time for tiger

Nap time in funny poses!

Both lions were napping with a leg in the air!

Here is a great article about all they are doing for the elephants at the Phoenix Zoo: Phoenix Zoo Elephants

“They say that somewhere in Africa the elephants have a secret grave where they go to lie down, unburden their wrinkled gray bodies, and soar away, light spirits at the end.”
Robert R. McCammon, Boy's Life

To see more of my photos go to Bee Photography

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