DENVER (CBS4) – Staff at the Denver Zoo examined their elephants Wednesday as part of regular checkups to make sure they are all healthy, an example of how teaching animals tricks helps the medical staff interact with them and ensure they receive good care.
“It has to be voluntary, when you weigh 14,000 pounds you have to agree to it,” said Emily Insalaco, the curator of behavioral husbandry and animal ambassadors for the Denver Zoo. “We want them to be able to communicate whether they’re comfortable in that session.”
This session included a veterinarian examining the elephants as well as taking x-rays of their feet. Foot problems can be an important issue to monitor for the species. The animals have learned to raise their feet so staff can take a closer look. Food and word cues along with a whistle help to guide the elephants as they walk into special sections of their zoo habitat. While there are walls to separate the humans and the animals, staff say the elephants choose to come toward them and can leave if they do not like the experience.
“It gives us our own space and more importantly it gives the elephants their own space,” Insalaco said. “They know that they can walk away at any time.”
She says the idea is similar to the way many families train their dogs and cats. The approach is different given the size of the animals in this case. Often these sessions or similar procedures can be performed while the public is watching from a safe distance. It provides an extra layer of transparency and helps to educate visitors about treating and caring for these species. Training techniques can sometimes be demonstrative and entertaining but it is never meant to amuse a crowd at the animal’s expense.
“All of our behaviors are based on goals we’ve set for our animals,” she said. “Our primary intent is to take care of our animals and connect our animals with our guests.”
Maura Davis is the elephant manager at the Denver Zoo. She’s worked with these animals for 10 years including four at this location. The challenge of adjusting to the elephants’ needs, when the plan does not always go as staff expects, is what keeps her coming back each day.
“I found it fascinating,” Davis said. “I can’t leave, they’re too awesome.”
During the examinations taking place on the day CBS4 visited the zoo, Maura helped lead the check ups including for two elephants very different in age and size. The first, Groucho, is 49 years old and over 10 feet tall, weighing 12,000 pounds. The other elephant, Chuck, who is 11, is their smallest. He is about half the size of Groucho — around seven feet tall and 6,500 pounds. Training these animals to learn certain cues that help prepare for exams including foot check-ups or even drawing blood range from a few sessions to months for the elephants.
“He knows that usually when we’re around, a positive and fun thing is about to happen,” she said.
The animals enjoy the rewards they receive in the form of food and it helps keep them engaged during these exams. In some cases, the sessions can be a source of enjoyment and interaction for the animals. Davis says she and the others at the zoo are often motivated by what the elephants can teach them. Adapting to the animals’ needs and preparing for unexpected challenges is just one lesson she has picked up on the job.
Denver is home to a bachelor heard. While other institutions choose to be breeding sites, this zoo hosts those males that can live with a herd but are not ready or able to mate. The interactions among the five male elephants sets an example not just for the staff but the public as well to appreciate when they visit.
“They peacefully coexist,” Davis said. “They can live together and work together just fine.”