The buzz of drills and saws is a common sound near the new elephant exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
“As you can see, we’re still working fast and furious,” zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham said while walking briskly through the exhibit.
A three-day preview of the Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit to zoo members starts Wednesday. The public unveiling of the exhibit is May 27, the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend.
Until then, zoo staff members are working to make sure the final touches of the exhibit, like graphic designs on buildings, park benches and vegetation near the sidewalks, are in place.
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On Monday, elephant keepers and zoo management talked about the budding relationship between keepers and their elephants, the elephants’ diets and how the personalities of the six new pachyderms from Swaziland are starting to emerge.
Elephants are highly social, intelligent creatures. And the keepers say the personalities of the zoos’ new elephants are shining through as they get more accustomed to their new home.
Most of the elephants are 6 to 8 years old. One older elephant, Simunye, is the matriarch of the newcomers.
Elephant keeper Jamie Martin said Simunye was the matriarch of the other elephants when they were in temporary holding pens in Swaziland. That social structure still holds now that the elephants are in the United States. They arrived here about two months ago.
“It’s her job to protect everybody. She would lead the herd if they’re going to find food. She teaches the youngsters their manners,” Martin said. “She’s always alert. She keeps her eyes on us.
“The little kids are young, and they’re just taking it all in stride,” she said. “But she’s a little bit older, and she knows to be watchful.”
Martin added that Arusi, a female elephant with no tusks, has a lot of energy.
“She has to be the center of everything,” said Mary Zachar, another elephant keeper.
There’s only one male elephant, Titan.
“He’s a little more fearless, if you will,” said deputy zoo director Ryan Gulker. “He doesn’t mind being kind of by himself wandering around.”
Martin also said the zoo’s longtime elephant, Stephanie, is getting used to the new company. She’s been separated from the new elephants. On Monday, she roamed the smaller south yard while the other elephants walked around the larger enclosure.
“She’s been showing signs that we can introduce her,” Martin said. “She often brings her hay over to the fence line and wants to eat as close to them as possible. And they come visit her near the fence.”
Zoo staff members placed tree branches around the exhibit for the elephants to munch on.
“We’ve made some relationships with local tree-removal companies, and they deliver what’s called browse all the time, more than we can actually use,” Gulker said. “I’ve seen like a dumptruck load full of them, and we provide it to them (elephants) every day.
“It’s a natural part of what elephants eat in the wild,” he added. “They eat a lot of tree leaves and twigs and things of that nature.”
Other animals eat browse, but the elephants go through a lot of the shrubbery every day.
“The elephants obviously eat much more than the rest of the zoo combined,” Gulker said.
“We will also cut down whole trees and bring them out here … and let them tear them apart,” Gulker said. “When they get to the thicker parts, they’ll start stripping the bark off of them and eat the bark.
“This tree was a sacrificial one, here,” he said, laughing and motioning to the remains of a small tree shredded by the elephants.
Keepers also toss the elephants sweet potatoes, apples or pieces of compressed alfalfa to eat. It’s a way to get the elephants into the exhibit from the elephant barn and then back in the barn later.
“The elephants follow the keepers pretty much where they’ll go,” Gulker said. “They associate the keepers with good things.”
The food acts as positive reinforcement for the elephants.
“I wouldn’t say that they’re attached to the keepers as much as they understand that when they work with the keepers and the keepers are training, it’s a rewarding experience,” Gulker said.
The keepers make sure the exhibit’s mud pits are muddy and that the hay feeders are stocked.
“The habitat maintenance is a big part of it,” Martin said.
The keepers are also responsible for making sure the six new elephants get acclimated to the features of the exhibit, such as the doors and the water features.
“We have a whole list of stuff that we need to be teaching these guys,” Zachar said.