June 30, 2011
I'm back! I do apologize to those of you who have been waiting for the next installment of our updates but I had a new, slightly smaller critter to take care of recently. So for the past two months, I have been out on family leave taking care of my new daughter. But I’m back now and excited to continue with the Elephant Diaries.
At the National Zoo we now care for the second oldest elephant in North America, Ambika. She is now estimated to be 63 years old. We often get questions about Ambika’s health and about what we are doing to care for a geriatric but still healthy elephant.
The easy answer is that we are giving her the same care that allowed her to reach this age in the first place. We continue the same regimen of training that allows us to give her exercise and perform daily physical exams of her entire body. We also continue to ask her to complete a series of movements that not only allow us to complete basic husbandry tasks such as baths and footcare but also allow us to see how she is moving. If she cannot complete a behavior using a full range of motion normal for that behavior we can use that to diagnose small physical issues before they can escalate. Although we do the same things with our 35-year-old female, Shanthi, and with her nine-year-old son, Kandula, we obviously pay particular attention to Ambika with an eye to conditions that are more likely to develop in a geriatric animal.
One of the areas we pay particular attention to is her dentition. In the normal life cycle of an Asian or African elephant, the animal grows six successive set of four molar teeth that wear down, fall out and are replaced as they age. There is a general time frame for each tooth to fall out and be replaced. At 63, Ambika should definitely be using her last set. One of the challenges with Ambika, however, is that she has really bad alignment or malocclusion. We have known about her dental issues for a very long time and we pay very close attention to her dietary intake, her weight, and to put it bluntly, her poop.
Elephants are fairly inefficient at processing the food they take in and they usually only extract about 50 percent of the total nutrition available in their food. The bulk of their diet is made up of cellulose plant material and they really just need to get enough of it into their gut in a manageable form so that the bacterial cultures in their intestines can break down the cellulose. Elephants gain most of their nutrition from the breakdown byproducts. So even though Ambika cannot chew her food very well, as long as she can break it down enough to allow it to travel into her hindgut she can still benefit from it.
One of the things we are doing to help her out is to give her a large variety of foods to choose from to satisfy her daily dietary requirements. Because of the condition of her teeth, we realize there may be some days when it is uncomfortable for her to chew particularly dense, hard pelletted grains. We try to accommodate for this by giving her several types of grains that are different sizes and densities and even taste different so that she can decide what she is comfortable eating. Some days she chooses to eat everything and some days she can be very picky and choose to eat only one type of food. We have also started running her hay allotment through a chipper/shredder to help with the process of breaking down the fibers so she doesn’t have to do as much of the work herself and so that her gut can extract more from it.
In the end, as long as her weight stays consistent at the weekly weigh-ins and her overall body condition stays within accepted parameters, we can continue to spoil her with this daily smorgasbord. By the way, Shanthi and Kandula seem to feel that this is very unfair. One of the reasons we go to all this trouble to maintain her weight is that as an older elephant, she could develop a condition that could rapidly compromise her overall health. She will be more able to cope with an illness or injury if she has the stored resources available in a modest fat layer to give her the energy she needs to heal.
In the next installment of Elephant Diaries, I'll talk more about how we care for Ambika and provide an update on the progress of the Elephant Trails Phase II construction.