For aging Texas elephant, lots of attention, pills

The Dallas Morning NewsJuly 14, 2014 

— Early one morning, Mama the elephant embarks on a medical routine that many seniors would find familiar, if daunting.

First, she pops some pills — 144, in her case, for conditions such as joint stiffness and fluid retention. They come stashed inside two dozen peanut butter sandwiches piled inside two gray buckets. At a keeper's prompting, Mama tosses her head back, curls up her trunk and opens her mouth so the keeper can toss in the sandwiches one by one.

Next, it's time for some blood tests, a bath, a foot exam, a massage with the elephant version of Bengay, and a weight check. All week, a team of experts monitors Mama's activity level, appetite, stool consistency, sleep habits and scores of other attributes listed in a medical chart that fills a bright red binder.

Such are the travails of a geriatric elephant. At 44, Mama has surpassed the 38-year average life expectancy for a female African elephant in captivity. She is the Dallas Zoo's oldest pachyderm and presides over a herd of five aging elephants whom zoo officials have dubbed "The Golden Girls."

"In the last three decades, animal care has improved by leaps and bounds to the point where animals are living longer," says Martha Fischer, a noted elephant specialist and curator at the St. Louis Zoo.

As a result, keepers and veterinarians have gained valuable experience in how to care for older animals.

Harry Peachey, elephant manager at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, says zoo veterinarians are in constant contact about best practices.

They also consult journals, such as Zoo Biology, which have outlined normal blood work for elephants and regularly publish case reports on various conditions, says Jan Raines, associate veterinarian at the Dallas Zoo.

Raines consults journals and speaks with colleagues but also uses trial and error to figure out what works best for Mama. "Every elephant is different," she told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1zBuIBl ). "What works best for one may not always work for another."

The Golden Girls' advancing age has turned a corner of the Dallas Zoo's Giants of the Savanna habitat into a sort of assisted living facility. The four other elephants — Jenny, Congo, Kamba and Gypsy — range in age from 32 to 37. But they don't take medicine and don't require the same level of specialized care as Mama.

Mama can't bend her right rear leg, the result of an injury she sustained before she arrived at the Dallas Zoo in 2010. The injury prevents her from lying down. So zoo staff designed special "furniture" — partially buried or hanging logs, mounds of sand — that allows her to rest or even sleep standing up.

"She'll rest her tusks in a sand pile or on a tree trunk or stump," says Karen Gibson, the Dallas Zoo's elephant curator.

One of Mama's favorite pieces is an enormous tree trunk chained diagonally to the inside of a barn behind the Savanna habitat. The barn houses the elephants for an hour or two each morning while zoo staff clean the habitat and put out fresh food and "browse" — loose tree branches that elephants strip for leaves and bark.

Gibson says Mama often sits on the beam and leans against the iron bars of the enclosure.

Outside of stiff joints and mandatory medical tests, Mama presents her caretakers with many challenges that human patients would not.

For one thing, Dallas Zoo caretakers are not allowed to be in the same enclosure as an elephant, for the safety of the keepers and to reduce stress on the animals.

So Mama had to be trained to present different parts of her body to keepers through the bars of her enclosure inside the barn, where her morning medical checkups and procedures take place.

Even a simple blood draw involves multiple steps and staffers.

A little later that morning, elephant keeper Bobbi Wessels pushed a stepping stool up to the outside of Mama's enclosure while Katrina Bilski, another keeper, prompted Mama to stick one of her enormous ears through a special window. Reaching up from atop the stool, Wessels stuck a small needle into a vein at the back of Mama's ear.

"Steady," said Bilski, rubbing the front of Mama's ear to soothe her and remind her to hold still.

"Good girl!" Wessels said.

Once the blood draw was complete and the ear cleaned with an alcohol wipe, it was time for a reward. Bilski emptied a bucket of freshly cut fruit and vegetables — bananas, sweet potatoes, pear, pineapple and carrots — into her enclosure. Finally, she took a whole coconut and tossed it into Mama's mouth. The elephant crushed it with her teeth, swallowed the juice, then crunched the shell.

"She's very sweet, she's very gentle," said Bilski of Mama. "She's not very vocal with us, but with the other elephants she's very vocal, very chatty, always keeping in contact with them."

Elephants communicate by trumpeting, roaring and by emitting a sound that is too low-frequency for humans to hear but that can travel for several miles.

On this particular morning, the biggest challenge proved to be coaxing Mama back out into the main habitat.

"It takes longer to work with her," said Gibson, referring to the fact that Mama has slowed with age, "but there are very patient people here."

On her way out of the barn, the keepers wanted Mama to stand on a digital scale embedded in the floor.

Staffers carefully monitor Mama's weight to make sure it does not dip below 7,000 pounds. They also feed her a special diet enriched with high-protein, high-calorie grains and hay — the elephant version of Ensure shakes.

When Mama finally completed her weigh-in, a cheer went up from her half-dozen keepers as she tipped the scale at 7,020 pounds.

After that, she continued to linger in the barn, because, Gibson said, she wasn't sure where the four other elephants were.

"She likes to know where they are at all times," she said.

Each elephant herd has a hierarchy, and Mama is top elephant at the Dallas Zoo. As the only one to have reared a baby, she has the maternal instincts to look out for her peers, especially Congo, 36, and Kamba, 34, who are smaller than Mama.

"The other elephants seek her out for comfort if they're stressed about something like a loud noise," says Bilski. "She doesn't do the big reactions like the others do during those times. She's more like, 'Calm down, little ones.'"

To help encourage Mama to come out, Gibson decides to call Congo and Kamba back toward the barn. Once Mama sees her two charges, she finally emerges to the delight of zoo visitors.

Congo backs up to Mama and touches her with her tail, a sign of submission and respect, as Mama plucks a loose tree branch from the ground with her trunk.

Eventually, the two other elephants, Gypsy and Jenny, join them, coming up to Mama and touching her face with their trunks in greeting.

The herd is reunited for another day on the savanna.

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service