Enthralling elephants: Pachyderms at Hogle Zoo serve as ambassadors to their wild counterparts
Heather Tuttle, Deseret News
Eric Peterson was always a reptile guy until the day he was asked to help out with the elephants at Hogle Zoo. It was a career-changing, love-at-first-encounter moment.
Twenty years later, Peterson is the elephant manager at Hogle Zoo. His day starts at 7:30 a.m., full of typical managerial duties. There are meetings to attend, loads of paperwork to fill out, employees to oversee and supplies to order. But when you are tasked with caring for three African elephants — the largest land-based mammal — you aren’t ordering pens and pencils. You’re ordering feed — truckloads of it.
In the wild, elephants roam 16 hours a day seeking food (roots, grasses, fruit and bark). An adult can consume 300 pounds a day. But Hogle Zoo’s resident elephants — Dari, Christie and Zuri — get primo feed. They don’t need to eat as much to get their nutrients. The three females intake a combined total of 200 pounds of produce daily, which results in an even bigger output. They excrete 600 pounds each day.
Shoveling 600 pounds of poop isn’t the best part of an elephant trainer’s day, but it is necessary. Checking an animal’s feces is a quick sign as to whether there are health problems that need to be attended to and keeping the animals healthy — and happy — which leads to the best part of a trainers day: interaction with the elephants.
Peterson says when he first started working with elephants he was surprised to learn how intelligent they are. Current research shows that elephants might be on par with dolphins and apes when it comes to intelligence. They use tools, show affection, mourn their dead, understand the value of teamwork to accomplish a task and can even recognize themselves in a mirror.
Peterson says the zoo’s elephants are quick to learn and seem to enjoy the challenge of training. Some things come quickly, other more-complex skills might take several days — such as teaching Zuri how to pick up a peanut butter jar and place it in a recycling bin.
All the training comes together in Hogle Zoo’s elephant encounter show. Peterson feels that Dari, Christie and Zuri are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. His hope is that by watching the zoo’s elephants perform, people will learn to appreciate them, learn how important they are and that they need our protection.
In the 1970s there were 1 million to 2 million elephants in Africa. Today that number is believed to be around 500,000. There are two main factors in their decline — both human caused — habitat encroachment and demand for ivory. It is estimated that 25,000 elephants are killed per year for their tusks.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, “If conservation action is not forthcoming, elephants may become locally extinct in some parts of Africa within 50 years.”
Others estimate that could happen in as little as 15 years and it would have a devastating impact on the ecosystem where those elephants live. Other animals, insects and plants rely on them for survival. An elephant can find water underground and dig it out with its tusks, thus providing water for other animals and even humans. Some plant species depend on elephants dispersing their seeds. Elephants eat seeds and then spread them in their dung. The dung is a great fertilizer for the seeds to propagate in.
You might wonder what can you do to help save these gentle creatures. The easy answer is don’t buy products made out of ivory. You could also support organizations dedicated to elephant preservation or start by simply being more aware of how the things we do impact the world around us.
What does the zoo do with all that poo?! Some zoos recycle it into fertilizer. Denver Zoo has a poo power vehicle. For now, Hogle Zoo sends it off to a plant that deals specifically with zoo poo.
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