On Sunday, I had the unique opportunity to go behind the scenes with the Asian Elephants. This opportunity is open to the public (at a fee) so register and come along with me for this once in a lifetime experience! Click here for more information and to register. There are no pictures allowed in the behind the scenes of the zoo so I will try to describe this all as best as possible.
The elephants have three main areas at the El Paso Zoo. The main exhibit, a training yard and their night house. We started off in the night house and as we walked in two zookeepers were working with one elephant, Savannah. The elephants are in their enclosure and the keepers can train and work with them from the safety of the outside of the enclosure. Keepers use a target pole (a styrofoam buey on a stick) as an item the animals have to touch to get them to move and shift their bodies in certain ways. A whistle (usually high pitched) is used as a bridge to make the animal aware that they are doing the correct behavior and positive reinforcement (a treat) is on its way. This is a common practice used to train animals all over the world.
The keepers were working with Savannah, an 8,000 pound female Asian elephant, having her display different behaviors such as opening her mouth so they can look at her teeth, raising her legs so they can file her finger nails and maneuvering her around the enclosure to wash her entire body. This training makes life less stressful for the animals during veterinary procedures as well as keeps their brains active. Keepers can also monitor the health of the animals by making sure they can complete all the movements without any pain.
Even though Savannah is one of the oldest living Asian elephants in zoos she is still learning new things. About a month ago the trainers were able to teach her how to lay down. It is amazing to see such a large animal lay down right in front of you. Elephants, along with all animals, have their own personalities and are also moody. Sometimes they want to work and sometimes they don’t. The elephants at the El Paso Zoo are never forced to do anything they don’t want to, they can always walk away. But most of the time they want to participate because of the tasty treats they get! The keepers even joked their snacks taste great with milk. (ha) I was able to give Savannah one of her treats with my hands and loved how her trunk opened up and smothered my hand to pick up the treat. We were also allowed the chance to touch the elephant to feel what their skin is like. Rough, hairy, very leathery and thick are a few words to describe their skin. Basically not what you would think!
After Savannah was done with her training, they opened the huge elephant sized doors to move her over and move Juno in to start her training. Juno came from the Ringling Brothers Circus and has ear piercings to prove it. As I look at her, I can only imagine the stories she could tell us. When she arrived at the zoo in early 2000s she was wary and angry at people but over time due to her caring and amazing keepers she has become more comfortable. Juno also demonstrated some of her training she has learned as the keepers told us more about her and her moody personality.
After our elephant encounter we explored their outdoor exhibit and all of the enrichment items hidden throughout for the elephants to discover and figure out. The elephants usually have access to their inside and outside exhibits at night. Since they weigh so much they only lay down for a few hours at a time and utilize sand mounds placed in their exhibits to lean up against. This makes it easier for them to get up, and since Savannah and Juno are old ladies, it helps them out immensely. The keepers also told us that they snore!
Also, everyday at 12pm the zoo hosts an Elephant presentation at the training yard where you can learn about elephants and watch some of their behavioral enrichment training with a zookeeper.
The same day, I caught a glimpse of the two Malaysian Tapirs taking a dip in the pool! Tapirs are unique looking herbivorous mammals with long noses, I did manage to capture a few pictures of them with my phone. The male was following the female all around the exhibit and as they spent some time under water I looked a little closer and realized there was a horse fly they were escaping from! Take a look at the silly pictures:
To learn more about Malaysian Tapirs visit their fact sheet here.