Asian Elephant at the Louisville Zoo

Caring For 10,000 Pound Elephants

“What do the animals eat?” “How do you make sure they are healthy?” “Is their species endangered?” “What do animals and keepers do every day?” “What is this animal’s unique story or personality?” These are the questions we most often hear from visitors to the Louisville Zoo. This article is the first part in a series highlighting the variety of animals that call our Zoo home through a look into their history, exhibits and care.

Home Sweet Home
Mikki, an African elephant, and Punch, an Asian elephant, have lived at the Louisville Zoo for most of their lives. Punch arrived in 1973 and Mikki arrived in 1987. Although several other elephants have been part of their group through the years, these two female elephants have been companions for decades and have developed a very strong, familial bond.

Research has shown that displacing or separating bonded elephants can cause long-standing stress, so the Louisville Zoo not only focuses on caring for Mikki and Punch’s individual needs; equally important, we have made a commitment to providing this small family group with a safe and enriching environment that fosters their familial bond so essential to their welfare for the duration of their lives.

Mikki and Punch’s exhibit has changed considerably over the years as innovations and standards have developed and as the needs of the individuals and group change. In 2016, the most recent upgrade took place allowing for new protected contact management, improvements to their indoor space, numerous enrichment features and the expansion of outdoor space, with new flexible gating that could be used to facilitate the management of a new calf. Everything in the Zoo world must be planned out well in advance to minimize disruption for animals and visitors and to raise funds for the enhancements that often run into the millions of dollars. (See more details about the recent upgrades in the spring 2016 issue of the Trunkline here.)

Everyday Experts, Specialists and a Global Network of Care
All the animals at the Louisville Zoo have customized care plans, and Mikki and Punch are no exception. Our husbandry, healthcare and exhibit planning revolve around Mikki and Punch’s specific needs as individuals and as a family unit. Steve Burton, Elephant Area Supervisor, has been caring for both elephants for almost 20 years. He started volunteering at the Zoo at the age of 13.

“Once I began working with our elephants, I never looked back,” Steve said.
Steve, along with seasoned elephant keepers Brian Hettinger, Brice Patterson and Mark Stocker, are members of the Louisville Zoo’s elephant care team. Additional care is provided by our Curator of Mammals, Jane Anne Franklin, the Zoo’s veterinary team and outside specialists like Dr. Tom Clark, a dentist and clinical instructor at the University of Louisville.

Mikki and Punch also have an extended team of individuals and groups who combine a love of elephants with the science of elephant welfare to ensure that Mikki and Punch reap the reward of first-class elephant care, directly and indirectly. This includes the collective experts of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group who utilize their expertise and connections worldwide to develop standards for elephant management and care.*

Mikki and Punch actively participate in all of their care, enabled by daily training, trust and a strong relationship with their keepers. This care has included visits from a veterinary acupuncturist to treat Punch for stiffness as she ages, to the addition of joint health supplements and vitamins into Mikki and Punch’s cored apple treats
“Elephants are honest — I know exactly what to expect when I come in. That comes from years of experience working with Mikki and Punch,” Steve said.

Whether it’s drawing blood for tests, checking footpads for wear or giving baths for skin care, the keepers use positive reinforcement to invite Mikki and Punch to participate willingly in these important activities.

An Average Day
An average day for Mikki and Punch includes two aerobics sessions that guide the elephants through a series of activities that offer exercise, mental stimulation and an opportunity for their keepers to check their eyes, feet, skin and teeth to ensure there are no health concerns. If you observe one of these sessions, the keepers may share insights into the training as well as some of the challenges faced by elephants in the remnant wild.

Steve and the team of keepers also ensure the indoor and outdoor spaces are clean and safe, and provide daily opportunities to participate in enriching activities that promote Mikki and Punch’s social and physical well-being. These activities may include “shaker bins” that drop small food items they can eat, hay nets that hang from trees and more. These “enrichments” encourage the elephants to use their natural foraging instincts.

Because of her age, Punch is considered a geriatric elephant, but she is still very active and enjoys playing with her boomer ball (see video online here). She will often kick it with her back leg or even chase it into the elephant pool during hot summer months. Mikki spends her time foraging in the exhibit and especially enjoys pulling the bark and leaves off of trees. Guests have even witnessed Mikki bracing her front legs on top of Punch to grab the highest tree limbs.

Mikki and Punch’s daily routine also includes a bath, where both elephants help their keepers by lying down, since it’s not easy to scrub two animals over nine feet tall that weigh close to 10,000 pounds!

The team ensures that Mikki and Punch receive excellent nutrition. Each day, the keepers prepare between 250 to 300 pounds of food that includes fruits, veggies, grasses, grains and other treats these herbivores enjoy.

Expanding the Group
As we noted briefly above, one important addition to Mikki and Punch’s expanded exhibit in 2016 included the addition of two special partitioning gates that can be used to assist with the management of an elephant calf.

Through the years, the Zoo has been working to assist 32-year-old Mikki to become pregnant through artificial insemination (AI), a technique commonly used for cattle, horses and even people. In the 1990s, experts developed a method to bring the technology to elephants. AI resulted in the birth of Mikki’s first calf, Scotty, more than ten years ago.

Many Zoo visitors will recall the delight and wonder that Scotty brought to the elephant habitat for three years as a fun-loving, rambunctious elephant calf. Sadly, he passed away due to complications of colic, a condition not uncommon in many elephants and horses. “Thinking of the birth and passing of Scotty, even to this day, is very emotional for me,” said Steve.

It has been eight years since Scotty passed away and Mikki is still a healthy, fertile elephant who by nature would typically seek out a male elephant with whom to breed. “For Mikki, raising an elephant calf is the most natural thing an elephant can do. Adding a calf to Mikki and Punch’s group will also strengthen the strong familial bond they already share,” said Louisville Zoo Senior Veterinarian Dr. Zoli Gyimesi.

However, separating the two elephants and transporting Mikki to another Zoo could inhibit breeding and relocating a bull elephant to the Louisville Zoo would result in stress for all of the elephants involved — aside from the rather large question of logistical feasibility. AI allows the Louisville Zoo to give Mikki the opportunity to mother another calf, safeguards the familial bonds of the elephants, and still maintains the highest levels of welfare for our animals.

Though it has proven effective, AI is not always successful and typically requires multiple endeavors. Each time Mikki undergoes AI, the Zoo makes every effort to ensure her safety and comfort. Each AI attempt is carried out by expertly trained staff who treat Mikki with the utmost care and respect. Many of these same staff, including Dr. Dennis Schmitt – the leading elephant reproductive specialist in the country — were involved in the successful AI and birth of Scotty.

With everything we do regarding animal care, it’s important to monitor the animal’s health and behavioral reactions. That’s why the Zoo partnered with Dr. Brent White, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Animal Behavior at Centre College, to conduct a soon-to-be-published study that monitors cortisol levels in our elephants — a hormone associated with measuring stress. We have also conducted similar studies with other animals including our polar and grizzly bears, elephants and gorillas. The elephant study showed that Mikki’s cortisol levels during recent exhibit construction and AI are similar to patterns on a regular day, a strong indication that neither activity appears to have caused Mikki additional stress.

In the happy event that Mikki becomes pregnant, we will remain cautiously optimistic as usual. Elephant pregnancy can be a complicated process, and with a 22-month gestation, it’s a long road to birth.

96 Elephants ReleasedPreserving Their Legacy
The sad reality is that approximately 96 African elephants die in the remnant wild every day due to poaching, placing these magnificent creatures in danger of becoming extinct in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, Asian elephants could be extinct in three generations. With the situation for elephants in the remnant wild so precarious, it is important for those who truly care about elephants to take action. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are often the only way that children and families can connect with wildlife and nature firsthand and where they can also learn how to take specific conservation action.

So, how can you help and do your part to preserve this dwindling elephant population? A portion of your admission or membership to the Louisville Zoo supports conservation partners like AZA, International Elephant Foundation and others worldwide. By visiting AZA-accredited facilities, you help to make possible the field conservation, research, habitat restoration, reduction of human-elephant conflicts and community-based initiatives that are necessary to protect wild populations.
Thanks for your support of Mikki and Punch at the Louisville Zoo, and for your support of elephant conservation and education worldwide.

*AZA-accredited facilities meet rigorous, mandatory standards for animal care and welfare, which include high and detailed standards for the care of elephants. The AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care are based on the expertise and scientific study of the AZA Elephant Taxon Advisory Group, which maintains an extensive network of scientific advisors covering the disciplines of nutrition, veterinary medicine, pathology, behavior, reproduction, population management, education and research.

The AZA has made a strong commitment to elephant conservation. The Asian elephant is included in the list of 14 focal species for AZA SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction. AZA SAFE takes a collaborative approach to recognize, promote and bolster conservation efforts for selected species. AZA institutions, including your Louisville Zoo, have contributed more than $8.1 million to elephant field conservation with $1.6 million directly spent to protect Asian elephants in the remnant wild.