Zoo serves feast fit for elephants

The most anticipated piece of Thanksgiving for 8-year-old Olivia Moore wasn't the pie at her family's dinner. It was watching Cinda the elephant use her trunk to shovel a sweet potato pie, complete with peanut crust, into her mouth.

"It's cool because animals usually can't have people food, and they can have people food," said Olivia, who met Cinda about five months ago during the girl's elephant-themed birthday party.

Olivia's family was one of several at the Sedgwick County Zoo that crowded around Thursday to see two 38-year-old African elephants eat their special meals, down to the cardboard platters.

Zookeeper Norma Gheen said she has prepared a Thanksgiving meal for Cinda and her companion Stephanie for about six years.

"These elephants are my life," said Gheen, who has worked with the elephants for almost 13 years. "This is one cute little way to do something special."

The elephants' Thanksgiving meal isn't much larger than humans'. But the strong suction in their trunks and enormous mouths makes it easier for the elephants to inhale a whole helping of peas and carrots at once.

The main course, turkey, is a paper bag with sweet potato slices as feathers. After all, elephants are vegetarians.

Cardboard and paper are made from trees, and eating them is much like eating tree branches, a regular part of an elephant diet, Gheen said.

Each elephant weighs in at about 7,000 pounds and eats 170 pounds of food a day.

Why do only the elephants get a Thanksgiving treat? Well, the gorillas do get to tear up paper turkeys.

"Elephants are just incredibly intelligent," Gheen said, adding that if she made a special meal for the zebras, for example, "they'd probably be terrified of it."

Gheen said she started working at the zoo in the children's farm. Her first experience up close with elephants —"get up and touch them and look them in the eyes" — had her applying for the next open keeper position at the Africa exhibit.

Humans connect emotionally to the elephants, which is therapeutic and often brings tears to visitors who are undergoing rehabilitation or suffering from terminal illness, Gheen said.

Part of that connection is because it's easy to see elephants as individuals with distinct personalities.

Cinda is the "wallflower" and sweet, Gheen said.

Stephanie, though, is the "drama queen," often throwing food she dislikes, like cantaloupe.

During Thursday's dinner, Stephanie tried to throw a bucket of orange drink on a television reporter, who was in front of a camera. Gheen made an amazing save by grabbing the bucket just in time.

But although the elephants know the meal is special, the thanksgiving is really for the humans.

"It's enriching not only for them, but for me," Gheen said.

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