Wildlife Safari is home to many creatures, from the tiny to the huge! The Elephant department looks after the biggest of the bunch. With five elephants, this herd keeps their care takers pretty busy! George (35 yrs), Tava (38), Valerie (34) and Moja (34) are African elephants, with their characteristic large ears and overall body size. Liz (52) is the only Asian elephant in the troop, but this doesn’t stop her from being in charge. As the matriarch of the group she demands respect. “She’s a tough cookie,” says Elephant Supervisor Dinah Wilson about Liz. “She has strength, attitude, confidence – comfortable in any setting.”
All the elephants have their own distinct personalities, and their keepers love getting to know them and spending time with them. George wins everyone’s hearts with his charm and sweet disposition; Tava loves her training sessions – she strives for perfection and loves to learn; Moja is very inquisitive (with the largest ears anyone has ever seen); and Valerie is super playful – toys or no she’ll find a way to have fun, even if it’s throwing dust!
With five large animals there is a lot of cleaning to be done, which takes up most of the keepers’ day. Then comes the husbandry work, the time where keepers make sure everyone is happy and healthy. Bathing, brushing, foot checks and overall health checks are important parts of making sure the elephants are at their best. “Then there is the training and interaction,” says Tracy Moser, Elephant Keeper. “Where we work with the elephants, giving them the chance to do exercises or physical therapy, do things that are stimulating and enriching for their brains as well as bodies – and of course letting guests meet the elephants!”
Working with such large and intelligent animals is incredible, but comes with a unique set of challenges.”You have to be a couple steps ahead, because they’ll be a couple steps ahead of you,” says keeper Courtney. “Everything here is big – large yards, gates, everything. Enrichment items are also very big, so you have to be pretty strong.”
Their intelligence makes training sessions particularly interesting. “You’re not just training an animal to robotically perform a behaviour – they will work in tandem with you to make it the way you want it. It’s really neat – different from any other animal,” says Courtney.
“Seeing how intelligent they are, that’s the most impressive thing about them. They have such distinct personalities and the way you can bond with them,” says Wilson, who has worked with elephants for 40 years. “It’s complex, there are a lot of different aspects to providing proper care, and safety too.” Safety considerations are vital when working with such huge, smart creatures. With trunks that stretch so far, and the strength to pick up large objects, keepers need to be aware at all times, and considerable thought needs to go into what toys they can play with.
Although there are an abundance of wonderful things about being close to such amazing animals, Wilson says that what she loves most about her work is seeing the bond that keepers form with the animals. Watching her staff develop their training relationships with the elephants is the most rewarding part of her job as supervisor. “It’s so much fun to see those relationships develop,” she says.
Full of rewarding hard work and fun with the elephants, staff love each day there, and love introducing people to these amazing animals. “No day is boring here,” says Wilson – so come and see it for yourself!