Weighing in at 3900kg, many people might be aware that African Elephant Cuddles is the largest resident at Taronga Western Plains Zoo. But what some people might not realise is that she has also lived at the Zoo the longest. Recently the Zoo celebrated its 40th anniversary since opening the front gates to visitors. Many adults may remember coming to visit the Zoo as kids themselves. The elephants have always been symbolic with the Zoo. The African Elephants that have graced our Zoo arrived in December 1977, the first year that we were open, and Cuddles was one of those, then little, elephants. She had come from Longleat Safari Park in the UK with three other African Elephants; Yum Yum, Cheri and David. The four of them travelled to Australia on a cruise ship and arrived in Sydney in October, where they were quarantined at Taronga Zoo, Sydney. They were then transferred via truck in December of the same year to Dubbo to their permanent home. Taronga Western Plains Zoo has been home to African Elephants, including Cuddles, ever since. As the herd aged, their numbers have slowly diminished and now Cuddles is the last African Elephant at the Zoo, and indeed in the country.
Cuddles has seen many changes to the Zoo, including various upgrades to the Elephant facility. However, one thing has remained constant during that time and that is that she is a real favourite amongst those who are lucky enough to work with her. Cuddles is definitely what you would call a “people” elephant! She loves to be the centre of attention and will often offer up her favourite behaviours in order to solicit a treat or some additional attention. She has been trained to rinse the tub she gets her morning and afternoon mash in, which involves getting a trunkful of water from her trough and blowing it in to her tub once she has finished eating, before handing it back to keepers. Usually she will have it rinsed and waiting before keepers even ask! She will sometimes take a tub from one of the Asian Elephants if they leave it close to her and rinse theirs as well! Cuddles is usually the first elephant that new trainee keepers start working with. This is because of her extremely gentle nature and willingness to work with people. This means that she is the first elephant that most keepers get to establish a relationship with, getting to know her personality and individual characteristics. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of her sweetness, she is a bit of a favourite at the Elephant barn. She has certainly perfected her best cute look and can usually manage to get an extra special little treat from keepers, maybe a banana or a handful of Lucerne, one of her favourites.
Cuddles lives in the Elephant facility alongside our seven Asian Elephants and two Arabian Camels. Over the past 40 years, the arrival of Asian Elephants to live alongside the African Elephants was probably one of the biggest changes Cuddles has seen. Then in more recent years, the introduction of the camels as companion animals for her when she is out on exhibit was another big change. At approximately 46 years of age we hope that she will be around for many more years yet and see many more changes here at the Zoo. So next time you are visiting, make sure you call past the Elephant exhibit and say hello to Cuddles.
By Elephant keeper, Rebecca O’Riordan