- About Their Homes
- Bathing, Foot Care and Enrichment
- Elephant Training Tools
- Caring for Ageing Elephants
Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos are home to 11 Elephants in total across the two sites at Sydney and Dubbo.
At Taronga Zoo the elephant exhibit has two levels with large upper and lower paddocks joined by a steep incline. The upper paddock has a deep moat where the elephants can swim and fully submerge. It also has mud wallows, an earthen mound, shade structure, and various feed and enrichment stations. The large barn is heated for winter and includes rubberized floors. The lower paddock follows the contour of the hill and ends with a large waterfall and wading pool.
The male elephant facility has been constructed on the former site of the heritage-listed elephant temple. This site now combines modern design with the charm of the original temple. The male elephant facility includes a large barn, a swimming pool, shade structures, feed and enrichment stations, mud wallow, earthen mound and massive logs.
At Taronga Western Plains Zoo the elephant facility stretches across five large paddocks which have swimming pools, mud wallows, and shade shelters along with dirt and grass mounds for the elephants to use at their leisure.
Taronga Western Plains Zoo recently added to its elephant facility in 2014, building a new elephant barn and two new paddocks. The new state-of-the-art three-stall elephant barn has been constructed from a thermal mass concrete to provide better insulation and has been designed to take advantage of natural sunlight to assist with heating and drying the barn throughout the year. The new barn also features automated louvers for cross ventilation as well as hydronic solar floor heating to heat the sand beds for the elephants and a 10kW solar system on the roof which powers all three barns at the facility.
All three barns at Taronga Western Plains Zoo are equipped with heating for the winter months and the Elephants are provided with the option to sleep inside the barn or outside in the behind-the-scenes paddocks during the warmer months.
Bath-time happens every day in the elephant barn at both Zoos. During this time the elephants are thoroughly cleaned, it’s kind of like giving the elephants an exfoliating scrub and removes any dead skin cells from their bodies. This is also a great opportunity to maintain and strengthen the close bond and trust between keeper and elephant, as well as check over the elephants thoroughly, incorporating a feet and teeth check.
Usually, following a hose down, the elephants love to cover themselves with dirt or mud, which is what they would do in the wild.
As social animals the best enrichment for elephants is contact with other elephants. Elephants are highly intelligent animals and enjoy learning and playing with each other as well as new challenges.
Our exhibits are designed to encourage the Elephants’ natural behaviours, with features such as swimming pools, mud wallows and dirt mounds. These features provide the elephants with the opportunity to swim, roll and cover themselves with dirt and mud as well as ensuring they get plenty of activity and exercise.
Play sessions, such as the games and activities we do, all help with balance, coordination, dexterity and problem-solving skills, plus continuing to strengthen the bond between elephant and keeper. Things like pushing tyres, pulling logs, catching, throwing and kicking balls are all fun and just like the baths provide an opportunity to positively interact with all the elephants.
Our elephants also receive a variety of enrichment toys including tyres, plastic barrels, drilled bamboo pieces, boomer balls, bungee apparatus and ropes as well as large tree branches and logs, all of which can be used at different times to exercise and enrich our elephants both physically and mentally.
All the elephants have a regular foot care routine which involves them presenting their feet so that the pads can be checked and cleaned and their nails trimmed and filed. Similar to horses, elephants nails grow continuously. Keepers file the nails to ensure that the edges are raised and weight is not exerted on them while the elephants walk around. By doing this we minimise cracking in their nails. This routine also assists keepers to build a strong bond and relationship with the elephants.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals and they learn new things very quickly. This combined with their strength and agility has meant that in the past they have been trained for human benefit and entertainment. At Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos we train the elephants for their own physical and mental well-being. By training certain behaviours and activities, the elephants actually help us look after them as best we can. There are a variety of methods and tools used to manage and train elephants. At Taronga there are four very important training tools that we use:
A target pole consists of a small water buoy or tennis ball attached to a wooden stick and is used as a point of reference for the elephant. The elephant is expected to move towards the water buoy (the “target”) and touch it with the appropriate part of their body. For example, to train an elephant to raise its foot, the target is positioned above the elephant’s foot. When the elephant raises its foot to touch the target pole, it is given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the target is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue. Instead just the verbal command “foot” is given and the elephant understands to raise its foot.
An elephant guide is a tool that is used to teach, guide and direct an elephant. In the past, some people have called this an ankus or a bullhook. These names are outdated and do not provide an adequate explanation for the proper use of the tool. Ankus is a term used to describe the elephant handling tool used in many Asian countries, which do not resemble our guides. The term bullhook was coined over 100 years ago by circus men who called all elephants, regardless of sex, bulls.
Elephant management has evolved since then, and its tools and their uses have evolved as well. The elephant guide consists of a blunt hook mounted on one end of a plastic or wooden shaft. The ends on the hook are tapered to a point so that the elephant can feel the pressure of the guide through their thick skin, but blunt enough so that the hook does not scratch or penetrate the skin. The design of the guide allows the elephant to be directed with either a pushing or pulling motion. The elephant guide adds a physical and visual cue to a verbal request. To train an elephant to raise its foot using an elephant guide, the keeper places the guide behind the foot. The keeper then touches the back of the foot with the guide and using only slight pressure, uses the guide to prompt the elephant to lift its foot. When the foot reaches the desired level, the elephant is praised and given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the guide is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue, as the elephant responds to the verbal request alone.
Each keeper has a pouch filled with treats that they carry around their waist when training. The treats are simply bite size pieces of fruits and veggies that the elephants enjoy. The treats are given to the elephants as positive reinforcement. When the elephant responds correctly to a request by the keeper, they are rewarded with a treat. They are also rewarded with treats purely for their good behaviour and attitude. This is a very powerful tool that is used in elephant training, and it provides the opportunity for all interactions with the keeper and elephant to be positive. The elephants are happy to co-operate with the keepers, as they are getting something they desire in the process.
By far the most powerful tool that keepers can have when training elephants is their positive relationship with the elephant. Having a genuine, loving relationship with the elephants is crucial to working with them successfully. Elephants are very social and affectionate, and respond well when the training is positive and fun for both the keepers and elephants. The elephants also thrive on the verbal praise and tactile affection given by the keepers. A kind word and gentle touch by the keeper go a long way towards building a trusting and caring relationship. Our goal is to have the elephants participate in training because they want to. A positive relationship is the key to making this happen.
Three of the elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo are considered to be in their twilight years. To ensure all three females maintain good health and a high quality of life as they grow older, keepers and veterinarians at the Zoo have put in place a special care program to assist with age related matters.
The elephants have also learnt to be weighed, present their feet, present their ears and to open their mouths for regular health and dental checks. These basic behaviours allow keepers to detect the slightest of changes in their weight, teeth, skin or toe nails, so these early indicators of illness can be acted on very quickly and effectively. The Elephants also have regular vet checks to ensure they are maintaining good health.
Zoo keepers also regularly hide the elephants food in and amongst objects in the exhibit so that they have to forage for their food like they would in the wild. This is great exercise as they walk from place to place in their large paddocks.
Caring for the world’s largest land mammals can be challenging, especially as they get older when they are prone to degenerative diseases similar to those older humans suffer. Currently we treat the elephants at the Zoo for degenerative joint diseases using nutritional supplements such as Glucosamine every day. These diseases are common with older animals and the elephants have responded well to this treatment.