Stephanie, the Sedgwick County Zoo’s lone elephant, settles into life without Cinda

Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat, barbecue sauce.
Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat, barbecue sauce. The Wichita Eagle

Stephanie was ready for “boogie time.”

The 43-year-old South African elephant flapped her giant ears in delight and wiggled her body, all 6,750 pounds of it.

Her keepers put her through her paces. The enrichment activities may just look like fun, but most have a purpose — namely training. “Boogie time” is one of 80 behaviors Stephanie has learned during her more than four decades at the Sedgwick County Zoo. Some activities help her exercise. Some help her stretch. Some help keepers check her over for problems.

Since November, Stephanie has been living alone in her area in the zoo’s African Veldt exhibit. Cinda, another elephant that also arrived at the zoo in 1972, died Nov. 5. While Stephanie is surrounded by rhinos and hippos, she is now the zoo’s lone elephant.

The morning Cinda died, Stephanie tried to wake her by nudging her.

Senior zookeeper Mike Forbes, who worked with Stephanie and Cinda for 20 years, said it was a difficult day.

“It was the hardest day in my career,” he said. “It was like losing a family member.”

The Eagle spent part of a day last week with keepers and Stephanie to get a glimpse of her life without Cinda.

“She seems to be doing OK,” Forbes said of Stephanie.

She is eating and acting normally, he said.

“In essence, she thought everything was about her anyway,” Forbes said with a smile. “The first couple of days were a little bit slower. Since she’s been alone, we’ve added more checks on her.”

Keepers added visits at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. Public training demonstrations occur at 10:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. daily.

Stephanie’s keepers start their day with her at 6:30 a.m., cleaning her area. They give her breakfast — she eats 170 pounds of food a day — and run her through training exercises. Forbes gets in about 8 a.m. and checks on her. At 10:45, keepers do another working session, running through enrichment activities. At 1 p.m., keepers bathe her and clean what’s left of her teeth.

Elephants are born with six sets of teeth. They lose a set every seven to eight years, and another set comes in. Stephanie is on her last set.

“She basically has the shells of her teeth left,” Forbes explained.

Keeper Kinna Middleton squirted ketchup on Stephanie’s tongue as a treat to get her to cooperate with the dental exam.

Middleton reached into Stephanie’s mouth with her whole arm to retrieve bits of undigested hay and other food from the centers of her four teeth. Stephanie was a bit stubborn about getting into the right position.

The keepers said she’s a stubborn soul, but they did so in a loving tone.

Middleton switched to barbecue sauce, which is Stephanie’s favorite treat for dental work. Keepers also have used ranch dressing. They don’t give her a food treat during dental work because they’d have to dig the particles of that out of her mouth.

Because Stephanie is on her last set of teeth and her teeth have holes in their centers, keepers finely shred her hay.

“It is, in essence, pre-chewed for her,” Forbes said.

At 3 p.m., Stephanie gets more hay and produce. Keepers might put some of the produce in a barrel with cut-outs that she has to manipulate to get to the food, much like a Kong toy for dogs.

At 4 p.m., keepers bring in hay and beet pulp.

That’s usually her last visit by her regular keepers. Nighttime keepers make two rounds of checks on animals during each eight-hour shift.

As Stephanie adjusts to life without Cinda, construction workers are building the zoo’s costliest exhibit, Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley. It will be the third largest elephant exhibit in the United States. The zoo plans to debut the exhibit to the public over Memorial Day 2016.

Elephants are social animals, and the exhibit is in response to a requirement by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that zoos it accredits have space for at least three elephants.

The zoo has raised $10,350,000 — including $5.3 million from the county — and has $250,000 more to raise.

More elephants will join Stephanie. The zoo hopes to get a breeding herd.

But as far as Forbes is concerned, “we’ve had the two best elephants on the planet.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

‘E Is for Elephants’

The Sedgwick County Zoo still needs to raise $250,000 for its new elephant exhibit, Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley.

Supporters can help in a few ways:

▪ For gifts of $10 and more, they can go to the zoo’s website, www.scz.org, and click on the “E Is for Elephants & So Am I” campaign in the middle of the page.

▪ They can stop by the membership office to make a donation with cash or a credit card.

▪ They can call the zoo at 316-266-8211 to make a donation or mail a donation to: E Is for Elephants & So Am I, 5555 Zoo Blvd., Wichita, KS 67212.

People who want to give more than $7,500 should contact development director Steve Onken by e-mail at steve.onken@scz.org or by phone at 316-266-8209.

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