Embracing Elderly Elephant Care

December 16, 2021

Author: Becky Heisler
Keeper, River's Edge

Pearl is one of the three elephants at the Zoo that turned 50 in 2021. She interacted with her Happy Birthday sign, which was one part of her birthday celebration. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo. 

I’m Becky Heisler, a keeper in the River’s Edge of the Saint Louis Zoo. My passion for elephants began in graduate school, where I studied with an elephant reproductive specialist. From there, I began my career at the Zoo as a River’s Edge keeper and have been in this position ever since. I’ve spent the past 19 years learning the intricacies of our elephant family’s personalities and forming bonds with this exceptional herd. As you can imagine, after almost two decades in this career, I’m starting to age a bit. Not unlike their aging keeper, some of our elephants are feeling the normal effects of getting older. This year we are celebrating the 50th birthdays of Pearl, Donna and Ellie, three elderly Asian elephants that call the Zoo home. The median life expectancy for Asian elephant females under human care is 47.5 years old. At 50 years old, our “Golden Girls” are considered geriatric, and we expect them to require medical care specialized for their dynamic and individual needs beyond primary care for the rest of their lives.

Before I dive into how we help our older elephants, I want to introduce each of them! Each elephant is different with her own unique personality and fun interests.

Priya, Ellie, Donna and Sri (from left to right) are seen interacting with several enrichment items including hay filled paper bags, large elephant-sized popsicles in white barrels and large, heavy-duty rubber toys. Ellie and Donna each turned 50 in 2021. They are considered geriatric elephants and are given unique care at the Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Pearl was the first female elephant to give birth at the Zoo, and she is the mother of our bull elephant Raja. Pearl has the most captivating golden eyes and likes to spend time with her granddaughters, Maliha, Jade, and Priya. She is very attentive and seems to enjoy interacting with her keepers. A good problem solver, she loves challenging puzzle feeders filled with special treats.

Donna has distinctive, flappy ears that are always moving! She is very conversational (oh, the stories she tells with her rumbles!) and enjoys making sounds with her trunk on various objects (a sort of ‘thunk, thunk, thunk’). A fantastic auntie, she used to spar with a much younger Raja. Nowadays, she helps teach Raja’s kids manners, such as sharing food and respecting elders. It’s important for young elephants to learn how to live well in a social group of dominant females, and Donna is a great teacher!

Ellie is a doting mother of three, a grandmother and our tallest female. She has a calm demeanor and does life by her own schedule. She enjoys pruning our trees and chilling in one of the pools under the waterfall.

Ellie (right) is one of the three elephants at the Zoo that turned 50 in 2021. Her youngest daughter Priya (left) helped her enjoy her birthday celebration. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

These "Golden Girls" are in need of increased support due to their age. Just like many people, they require geriatric care throughout the day. While I am reluctant to start my own exercise routine, these cooperative elephants voluntarily participate in daily exercises. The elephant care team that I am a part of helps them focus on stretching and staying limber through activities like yoga for elephants. Since joint health and mobility are so important, we design exercise routines to make sure they are able to perform movements properly with no discomfort.

Just as I need a yearly check-up, Pearl, Donna and Ellie also need health evaluations. Our extraordinary Animal Health and Nutrition teams provide a unified approach to ensure optimal well-being. They oversee physical exams twice a year. During these appointments, we check the elephants’ eyes, teeth, feet, and general movement. The team may discuss the addition of medications and supplements as necessary. This is all in addition to body condition assessments that take into account a number of health data points. We analyze this rating multiple times a year to verify the girls are fit and maintaining a healthy weight.

Health is not only about physical comfort; scientific studies on zoo elephant welfare suggest elephants experience the highest level of well-being when they live in a multigenerational family. We provide this exact type of social environment for our elephants and give them the opportunity to spend time with the younger individuals. This is why guests will often see Pearl with Maliha and Jade, and Donna and Sri with Ellie and her daughters. But most importantly, they have ample space to engage or disengage with individuals as they choose. Sometimes, these older ladies prefer some time away from the energetic youngsters. We can all relate to that! I feel this at a personal level, as I just attended a moms’ weekend away for “me time” at a spa. We definitely provide “me time” for the elephants as needed and are happy to give elephant pedicures or baths.

The elephants at the Zoo receive detailed health care, including nail trimmings. Nail care is important because properly trimmed nails can help to even out weight distribution on the cushiony pads of their feet and help prevent nail overgrowth and cracking. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The animal care team plays a key role in the care of these geriatric ladies. We are with them daily and intimately know them, which allows us to quickly notice if one of our elephants is acting uncharacteristically. Furthermore, we are knowledgeable about issues that are common in geriatric elephants and so have taken a number of preventative measures to help ease them into old age.

As foot problems can occur in older elephants, we condition the soil of the habitats to create a softer walking surface and provide checkups on their feet that include keeping their nails healthy and trimmed. Elephants have six sets of four teeth and, uniquely among mammals, even their permanent molars will be continuously replaced throughout their lifetime. To help provide these girls’ exceptional dental care, we offer a variety of plant material to browse on including soft trees, like willow! We also help grow and maintain a lush natural environment, so that each elephant develops their own favorite way to enjoy the River’s Edge.

In addition to dynamic social groups and habitats, we provide mental stimulation by creating positive-keeper elephant relationships that allow for voluntary and enriching training programs tailored to each elephant’s interests. They are active participants in their own preventative health care routines, so that if there is ever an illness or emergency requiring immediate intervention, this positive reinforcement training will remove a level of stress on the animals. 

The elephant care team will continue to provide preventative measures for the entire elephant family, including our "Golden Girls." I hope to be a part of this extraordinary team for several more years and may even become inspired to monitor my own health the way we monitor the elephants’ and replace my fast food tacos with kale! The Zoo provides exceptional elephant care by creating a low-stress, enriching environment with tailored diets and exercise programs. All of these factors are incorporated into the elephants’ daily voluntary routines. We want our elephant (and keeper!) family to live a long, healthy and comfortable life at the Zoo, no matter their stage of life!

Conservation Notes From the Field in Armenia

December 14, 2021

Author: Justin Elden
Keeper, Herpetarium

Zoological Manager of Herpetology Mark Wanner photographs an Armenian viper. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia has been conducting field research in the country of Armenia for over a decade. In September 2021, herpetology staff at the Zoo traveled to Armenia to conduct field research on endangered reptiles. Keeper Justin Elden documented the trip, and readers are invited to learn more about this international conservation effort in Elden’s own words (and photos) below!

An adult Armenian viper (Montivipera raddei). Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: The Armenian Viper                                                   

The Center for Conservation in Western Asia studies a number of animals, including the Armenian viper, a species whose numbers have declined drastically over the last few decades due to habitat destruction and over collection. Autumn is a good time to carry out research in this region as the snakes move towards their rocky winter dens coinciding with cooler weather. This makes it easier for Zoo researchers to locate snakes on the move and collect information about their populations. Though the climate was hotter and drier than expected, our herpetology staff were able to find enough vipers and other reptile species to add valuable data to a long term population monitoring study in an area outside the country’s capital of Yerevan. This area is currently not protected as a nature preserve. The Zoo and our Armenian colleagues want to bring formal protections to this site to ensure the Armenian vipers and other species are further protected, and collecting data on these endangered snakes is crucial to that effort.

Armenian herpetologist assessing the vast and dry habitat or Goravan Sands. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: Surveying in Goravan Sands

The WildCare Institute and our international partners are dedicated to the conservation of wild animals and wild places all over the world, including the obscure Pleske's racerunner lizard of Armenia. During this trip, herpetology staff supported surveys in a unique nature preserve, Goravan Sands, by helping local colleagues locate and photograph this endangered species.

The critically endangered Pleske's racerunner lizard (Eremias pleskei). Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Goravan Sands is a preserve of 95 hectares and has many endemic species of plant and animal that need its rocky and sandy habitat to survive. The Pleske's racerunner lizard is a critically endangered species and threatened by habitat destruction. It is only found in rocky, dry, undisturbed habitats in western Asia. During the surveys, numerous lizards were found and documented, leading our colleagues to believe the population is benefiting from the increased protection to their habitat that has been provided by the Armenian government and our in-country colleagues.

One of nine Caucasus blotched rat snakes (Elaphe sauromates) captive bred in Armenia and released into the wild by Zoo staff and Armenian colleagues. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: Introducing Caucasus Blotched Rat Snakes

The conservation-breeding component of the Center for Conservation in Western Asia takes places at the Zoo’s Armenian Conservation Breeding Center (ACBC) outside of the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Here, our Armenian herpetological collaborators care for and breed endangered species of reptile for release into the wild to bolster native populations. While visiting Armenia this past fall, Zoo staff were able to acquire new animals for the center’s breeding groups as well as help in the release of nine Caucasus blotched rat snakes back into the wild. The ACBC is the first facility of its kind and is a great example of collaborative efforts between the Zoo and our Armenian colleagues.

Dr. Levon Aghasyan, Director of the Armenian Conservation Breeding Center, releasing the rat snakes after a last physical. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Trips to Armenia, such as this one, are vitally important to the Zoo's dedication to amphibian conservation and to further assess areas in need of support. Reptiles and amphibians play vital roles in ecosystem health, and their survival is wholly dependent on conservation programs like ours. It is a bonus when your flagship species is the beautiful Armenian viper!

Mourning the Loss of Southern Rockhopper Penguin Enrique

December 08, 2021

On Friday, December 3, the animal care and veterinary teams humanely euthanized southern rockhopper penguin Enrique, who was almost 30 years old. The median life expectancy for a male southern rockhopper penguin is 25 years. As Enrique aged, he began showing signs of advanced arthritis and age-related changes in his eyes, resulting in decreased vision. To alleviate arthritis discomfort, a special pair of therapeutic support boots provided Enrique with a softer substrate and the ability to move around his habitat with greater ease. Recently, Enrique began showing signs of discomfort that could not be managed with veterinary intervention. Due to a recent decline in health, the Zoo decided to humanely euthanize Enrique.

"Enrique was a patient and gentle bird that had just the perfect mix of spunk and independence. He always had one of the most desirable nests that he tended to with great care. The penguin colony will be a little quieter without his unique call. Enrique's easy going demeanor will be deeply missed by the animal care staff and community," said Marija Elden, Zoological Manager of Birds, Saint Louis Zoo.

Enrique was greatly loved both by the public and his keepers. He was a dynamic part of the bird community at Saint Louis Zoo Penguin & Puffin Coast.

Penguin Conservation

The southern rockhopper penguin is one of two subspecies of the rockhopper penguin. It is estimated that between 1971 and 2007 (three generations), the number of southern rockhopper penguins declined by 34%. They are considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Over the past five years, AZA-managed populations of this species has fallen less than 1%.

Penguin & Puffin Coast is home to four species of penguin and two species of puffin. In the world, there are 18 species of penguin, and all are legally protected from egg collecting and hunting. All penguins are flightless and native to the southern hemisphere.

The Zoo supports penguins through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plans and through the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Punta San Juan, Peru. Through this center, we facilitate the designation of Punta San Juan as a Marine Reserve under the Peruvian Protected Areas System and secure the future of the Humboldt penguin in Punta San Juan.

Visit the Center for Conservation in Punta San Juan, Peru page to learn more.

Category: Our Animals