Elephantine Opportunities

By Megan Runquist Holmstedt

This article originally ran in the Spring 2011 issue of Zoo View, the quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. For up-to-date information about the elephant program at the Los Angeles Zoo, visit lazoo.org/elephants.

Enrichment in the Elephants of Asia Exhibit

Keepers hide food in the nooks of this artificial tree designed by Enrichment staff.

As the largest land animal on Earth, elephants pose one of the greatest challenges in any organization’s repertoire of animal care. Weighing up to seven tons and incredibly intelligent, these creatures test just how creative and determined a zoo’s staff can be. With their basic needs provided for, elephants could easily grow bored. That potential for boredom must be fought off by a stimulating environment. Enrichment, the facet of animal care that includes anything from the introduction of scents and objects into an animal’s environment to the design of the exhibit itself, allows resident animals to make choices and exercise a certain amount of control over their surroundings. The point of such enrichment is to tap in to animals’ natural behavior, to keep them as engaged and stimulated as possible. In recent years, it has become obvious that enrichment is as important to an animal’s well-being as every other facet of their care.

“We have an overwhelming responsibility to give these animals the best care we can,” explains Nancy Adams, Enrichment Coordinator at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. “In the old days, it was enough to have a good diet, good veterinary care, and good keepers who kept everything clean and tidy, but that’s not enough any more. We also have to keep them mentally stimulated.” In order to do so, animal care and enrichment staff join forces to conduct a thorough study of each animal’s natural and individual history and behavior. “It’s very specific,” Adams says, “what we design and build for each animal.”

It goes without saying that Zoo staff faces a big challenge when it comes to keeping a three- to seven-ton animal occupied. Meticulous attention is given to every aspect of the enrichment design process—from construction materials to durability. “If we’re talking about an animal that weighs around 13,000 pounds, the enrichment item has to be able to withstand that weight standing or doing a headstand on it if the elephant feels like it,” Adams asserts. “Safety is our number one concern.”

The items that elephant keepers and enrichment staff have come up with for Billy, Tina, and Jewel, the Asian elephants in residence ant the Zoo, are not only ingenious, they also pass all safety tests. Take, for example, a variation of the boomer ball: a common enrichment item, the industrial strength plastic ball is a simple, non-toxic object, usually with a few holes drilled into it to hide food items. Next to an elephant, however, a boomer ball looks like a bubble ready to pop. To expand on this staple in enrichment training, staff came up with the idea of a “spin feeder,” a rotating compost bin pierced with several holes for dispensing diet items. Of course, the metal had to be reinforced with extra frames and hinges, but all was worthwhile.

“It lasted longer than I thought,” explains enrichment staff member Jonathan “Jonboy” Silsby, one of the creative energies behind the Zoo’s enrichment items. “My initial thought was that Billy was going to pop right through it, but he was surprisingly gentle. It wasn’t until after six months that the metal started to bend. And that was just us experimenting with a prototype.”

Elephant Enrichment Device (Photo By Jamie Pham)
Elephant Enrichment Device (Photo By Jamie Pham)

The pachyderms’ playthings also include a six-foot tall bag made of fire hose. The fire hose, donated by the Los Angeles Fire Department, is woven together and bolted where the weave overlaps, leaving roughly two-inch by two-inch holes through which the elephants must reach with the ends of their dexterous, finger-like trunks. And what’s inside? Tasty items like hay, apples, and carrots, which are part of the elephants’ daily 330-pound diet, are stuffed into the bag for them to maneuver through the tiny holes. “When we tested the bag, it was the longest time I think that we’ve engaged any animal,” Adams adds. “It was something outrageous like 23 to 26 minutes before Billy broke his concentration, and he still loves it today just as much as when we first tried it.”

With the transformation of the old elephant enclosure into the Elephants of Asia exhibit, the Enrichment Division had a rare opportunity. Adams was able to propose ideas to the exhibit designers for permanent enrichment items inside the yards and watch as the six-acre enclosure, one of the largest animal habitats of any urban zoo in the country, became an elephant’s dream. “The whole elephant project had me chomping at the bit,” Adams confides.

Among the activities visitors might see Billy, Tina, and Jewel doing is searching for food, hay, and other objects in an artificial deadfall log located near the Wasserman Family Thai Pavilion. The roughly 13-foot log, made of concrete and rebar, provides a stable anchor for other enrichment items (like the fire-hose bag) and is riddled with organic-looking holes through which the elephants must reach to find the food that might be hidden inside.

The enrichment log in the Thailand yard has proven quite popular with the pachyderms.

Similarly, with the idea of constant foraging in mind, the Enrichment Division engineered a very special tree. The Fritz B. Burns Foundation Cambodian Pavilion boasts the best view of this artificial arboreal structure—a series of hollowed branches in which keepers can hide more of the elephants’ diet. Because 16 to 18 hours of a wild elephant’s day are spent foraging or feeding, it’s incredibly important to provide plenty of opportunities for zoo elephants to do the same.

Also built-in to the habitat is an incredible 20-foot waterfall, which is much more than meets the eye. In the face of the rock cliff, behind and wrapping around the side of the falls, is a series of holes that provide keepers with new areas to store caches of the pachyderms’ daily diet. The holes are scattered at different heights (with several lower ones for potential young additions to the current herd), and require some fancy trunk movement to check their contents. These smoothed hollows are more than just boxes in the hillside; the enrichment crew has created different ledges and blinds that provide a particular challenge to the pachyderms by requiring them to work their flexible trunks to acquire what’s inside.

Keepers access the boxes through a corridor on the inside of the waterfall. Thus they can replace and replenish the edible enrichment items in those hollows and keep the gentle giants checking each one throughout the day, mimicking the daylong foraging they would do in the wild. “Once they get the gist of it, they will go on and off all day, checking every one of those holes to see if the box inside has food in it or not,” Adams says.

Not only do the holes engage an elephant’s natural curiosity, but they also encourage bathing in the falls, stretching and reaching, and flexibility. And they’re a treat for the keepers as well; typically, there aren’t many opportunities to add enrichment to an enclosure during the day, so it is a rare and interesting opportunity to continuously engage the animals’ interest.

Enrichment encourages exploration and exercise.

The Elephants of Asia exhibit presents enrichment that encourages not only curiosity and exploration, but elephant health and hygiene as well. The enclosure is cushioned with two feet of river sand for a softer, easier walking surface, and each yard of the exhibit contains a water feature: a waterfall, wading pool, or mud wallow, similar to what the animals would find in their wild habitat. Bathing and wallowing is essential for skin care, mental well-being, and social interaction; these baths help to protect the elephants’ skin from the sun, insects, and moisture loss, in addition to providing the pachyderms more options for activity.

Including these features in the exhibit encourages elephants to maintain their personal hygiene in a more natural manner. “The water features encourage the elephants to take care of themselves, more than the keepers taking care of them,” explains Jennie Becker, Curator of Mammals. “The way that we have done it in the past is the keepers would hose them down and scrub them with brushes; we will still do that if we need to, but this way, the elephants are able to enjoy doing it themselves, and it adds to their quality of life.”

That, after all, is what enrichment is all about: enhancing the quality of zoo animals’ lives. The wealth of options provided by enrichment items encourages the pachyderms to express themselves as they would in the wild and make choices about their daily activities. It’s an important part of what makes Elephants of Asia a modern elephantine oasis, right here at the Los Angeles Zoo. 🐘

This article originally ran in the Spring 2011 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership. As of this posting in 2018, a female Asian elephant, Shaunzi, has joined the herd, and the current Curator of Mammals is now Candace Sclimenti. For up-to-date information about the elephant program at the Los Angeles Zoo, visit lazoo.org/elephants.