CMZoo’s Aging African Elephants Receive Special Keeper Care

November 29, 2018

Golden Years

Seeing LouLou, a 36-year-old female African elephant at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, participate in one of her daily care routines is like witnessing a pedicure of gigantic proportions.

Annie Dinwiddie, senior elephant keeper, points her target pole toward a horizontal rod and gently says, “foot.” Three-and-a-half-ton LouLou gracefully places her twelve-inch diameter round pad on a foot rest where Dinwiddie can inspect it and remedy any issues.

“We do this every day with all of our elephants,” Dinwiddie said. “As big as elephants are, the last thing we want is foot problems. Those feet are connected to the rest of their giant body. Their foot health is often a good indicator of their overall health, so this is one way we’re taking a preventative approach in their overall care.”

LouLou balances on three legs and presents her front left foot while Dinwiddie washes it and inspects it closely for any stuck debris, cracks or elephant-sized hang nails. The process takes about three minutes on one foot that needs a little work, due to LouLou enthusiastically using her toenails to strip bark from a log – a tasty treat for elephants. With the same ease and grace as she did before, at Dinwiddie’s request, LouLou expertly shifts her weight to present her back foot and Dinwiddie repeats the process.

LouLou is one of six “Golden Girls” in Encounter Africa, along with Missy, Kimba, Lucky, Jambo and Malaika. They’re all African elephants, but have unique personalities and some distinguishable physical features that help CMZoo visitors recognize and enjoy their individual personalities.

At 49, Missy is one of the oldest African elephants in human care in accredited zoos. She’s often in the yard with LouLou, 36, who is the easiest elephant to identify because she doesn’t have tusks. Kimba, 40, is the largest of the group, weighing in at just over 9,000 pounds. Lucky, 38, is playful and can be seen splashing around in the water or, on sunny winter days, throwing snow and then eating it. Jambo, 35, and Malaika, 32, are known as the sassiest and prefer to spend solo time in one of their many spaces at the Zoo.

“In addition to providing foot care, we’re always trying to give them opportunities to take care of their feet on their own,” Dinwiddie said. “We do that by allowing them to be elephants and to do what elephants are designed to do: move and walk. We have a lot of space for our elephants.”

That space is important in keeping six middle-to-upper aged elephants exercised, flexible and mentally engaged.

“They get smarter and smarter, so we’re constantly thinking of new ways to keep them stimulated and on their toes – and that keeps us on our toes,” said Thomas Reid, elephant animal keeper. “They may be getting up there in age, but they’re all young at heart.”

A big part of an elephant keeper’s job is moving them around between the different spaces. The goal is to prevent them from being in the same space for more than an hour. Various husbandry activities that keepers practice with the elephants daily means the elephants explore different areas and stay comfortable with keepers being in protected-but-close proximity, which is necessary to their care.

“The training is always on their terms,” Dinwiddie said. “They’re trained to present their ears so we can do monthly blood draws. There are a lot of blood vessels in their ears and it’s the thinnest area of skin. They have the ability to restrict blood flow to their ears, so literally if they don’t want to participate, they can prevent it from happening. If they choose to participate, they get a handful of jumbo marshmallows as a special treat that reinforces their behavior.”

Taking proper care of any animal requires dedication, but keeping this aging group healthy and happy calls for a jam-packed schedule of care, training, monitoring and documentation.

The elephants also participate in ‘elephant yoga,’ doing various stretches instructed by keepers in effort to maintain flexibility. Keepers take the elephants on daily walks on a quarter-mile path they call the elephant trek, ensuring they get adequate exercise. Lucky and Missy get injections to help with arthritis, and they’re all weighed monthly. Keepers document images of each of their feet to track changes long-term and five of the six elephants need regular oral medications for various reasons.

“Because of their size, often it’s a large number of pills,” Dinwiddie said. ”We ask them to come around to the bollards and open their mouths. Then we throw the pills into their mouths and chase it with orange juice. They swallow and it’s all done.”

On days of 40-degrees-or-cooler weather, the girls have the option of going into the barn, which is open to guests all year long, or into the yard. Visitors can also get to know CMZoo’s amazing elephant herd by planning an animal encounter. During these behind-the-scenes experiences, guests can feed them and even watch them paint a picture.
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