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Becoming one family: Elephants at Sedgwick County Zoo bond

Micaela Atkinson cleans Stephanie’s teeth at the Sedgwick County Zoo this week. (Feb. 22, 2017)
Micaela Atkinson cleans Stephanie’s teeth at the Sedgwick County Zoo this week. (Feb. 22, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

It has been almost a year since six elephants from Swaziland landed in Wichita.

Sedgwick County Zoo officials are thrilled that the elephants they acquired from Africa last year are acting like a herd in the wild by doing things together. (video by Jaime Green)

Would they get along with Stephanie, the zoo’s only other elephant? She was 44 years old then, and her longtime companion, Cinda, had died in 2014.

Could zookeepers blend three family units into one?

The answer to both of those questions: You bet.

Stephanie has since become the matriarch of the Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo. The youngsters look to her for guidance and direction, and she often utters deep, low roars of contentment.

Stephanie had not been in an elephant herd since she was 2.

“When we were able to get them all together, it was honestly – there were some tears flowing,” said Ryan Gulker, deputy director of the Sedgwick County Zoo. “It was very emotional to see Stephanie come together with the group.

“One of the elephants took a shine to her, trying to touch and smell her, and Stephanie reciprocated. We put more elephants in with her. It was like they had been together for a very long time.”

And now those six younger elephants have learned to perform tasks through behavior modification techniques.

Working together, living wild

This week, Lauren Ripple, the zoo’s elephant manager, and Jamie Martin and Micaela Atkinson, elephant care professionals, worked on basic maintenance skills with 6-year-old Talia.

As the keepers worked with Talia, Xolani stood behind another partitioned wall and mimicked what she was seeing Talia do.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s staff works with the elephants, who are trained every three days on different activities and are all working together as a herd. (video by Jaime Green/Feb. 23, 2017)

The elephants, Ripple said, are constantly watching, observing. They are acting as a family.

“The way elephants used to be kept at zoos were in pairs, a couple of females, maybe three,” she said. “That was the standard practice for a long time. And it is different than what we do now.”

Under the old way, keepers spent a lot of time with the elephants and almost became part of their “herd.”

Now, keepers spend minimal time with the animals, and the elephants spend the rest of their day in a more natural habitat and setting.

“It’s like nature intended,” Gulker said. “They come from the wild where there were cows, bulls, calves – old ones, young ones. This is what an elephant society is about. It is family oriented.

“They all have roles to play and behave differently than what I would have called a zoo elephant in the past.”

Learning new things

Spurred by a dog whistle and treats of fruit, Talia worked on presenting her ear, front feet and trunk to the zookeepers.

Presenting the ear through the bars allows the opportunity for blood to be drawn safely, feet can be examined for sores or for nails to be filed, and the trunk can be tested for tuberculosis and other diseases.

But each skill is done incrementally, with larger doses of positive reinforcement and treats.

“You break everything down,” Ripple said. “To get her used to blood draws, the first step was to get them to put their ears out, get them used to somebody touching them, then alcohol, then the needle.”

The first blood draw on Talia was successfully done Tuesday.

“With the alcohol swab, the veins become more prevalent, and we will be able to do monthly blood work to track her white blood cell count, her vitamin level, minerals and things like that,” Ripple said. “And, in the future, we will take those weekly for three to six months to accurately track her cycles so we will know when the good times will be to breed her. She is our youngest; she still has another three to four years before she begins cycling.”

The average gestation of an elephant is two years. Male elephants can begin mating at age 11, but preferably at 13 to 14. Female elephants breed at 9 to 10 years old.

Zoo officials are hoping that within the next five years, there will be baby elephants in the herd, Gulker said.

For now, Talia stood patiently as her front feet were scrubbed and her nails were briefly filed.

The elephants’ weight is also regularly monitored. Talia is the lightweight, coming in at 2,710 pounds. The other four juvenile elephants weigh between 3,000 and 3,600 pounds. Stephanie is the heaviest at 7,300 pounds.

“She needs to lose about 500 pounds,” Ripple said.

How do you get a 3-ton elephant to go on a diet? Gingerly, because there is no Jenny Craig for elephants.

“The easiest way for an elephant to lose weight is to modify diet and increase exercise,” Melissa Graham, spokeswoman for the Sedgwick County Zoo, wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle. “Sounds a little familiar doesn’t it!

“For modifying the diet, the amount of grain can be reduced and the type of hay can be changed to a lower protein content hay.”

Sedgwick County Zoo elephants go swimming on Saturday. Video courtesy of Lauren Ripple.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit opened to the public on Friday, May 27, 2016. (video by Jaime Green)

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo

▪ Stephanie: A 45-year-old elephant who is one of the longest living and most beloved residents at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

The six other elephants arrived at the zoo on March 11.

▪ Simunye (pronounced sim-un-ya): An 18- to 20-year-old female whose name means “we are one.”

▪ Titan: A 6- to 7-year-old male whose name means “defender.” He’s the son of Simunye.

▪ Arusi (uh-ROO-see): A 6- to 7-year-old female elephant whose name means “the sun” or “born at the wedding time.”

▪ Zuberi (zuw-beh-riy): A 7- to 8-year-old female whose name means “strong.”

▪ Xolani (zo-lani): A 6- to 7-year old female whose name means “peace.”

▪ Talia (ta-lia): A 6- to 7-year old female whose name means “dew of heaven.”

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