Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Caring for Elephants

The National Zoo provides physically and mentally stimulating environments and care for its elephants. That stimulation allows our animals to have choice and control over their environments, and gives them the opportunity to use their natural abilities and behaviors.


elephant playing with hanging blue barrels

A big part of caring for the elephants is providing them with enrichment. Since elephants are large social animals, Zoo keepers create enrichment activities providing mental stimulation as well as physical challenges. Keepers plan and document all of the enrichment activities so that they can continually enhance and improve what they offer.

Enrichment is given in many forms and on varying schedules. The elephants have daily, weekly, monthly and even annual enrichment schedules. Many different types of enrichment are used to provide mental, physical and behavioral stimulation. The Zoo’s enrichment goals encourage thinking and problem solving; enhance gross body movements and fine manipulation skills; and foster active behaviors, including those that fulfill husbandry needs and those that are typically displayed by wild elephants.


Food is a source of enrichment for the elephants every day. A variety of foods are scattered throughout the exhibits at least twice a day. Food is also placed in specially designed nooks throughout Elephant Trails, and hung in various portable feeders. Food also grows throughout parts of Elephant Trails. Grass grows in about half of the yard space, which allows the elephants to graze naturally. The Zoo’s Department of Nutrition also carefully devises individualized diets for each elephant. The Department of Nutrition has two clinical nutritionists, a commissary manager, a laboratory manager, a food service specialist and a group of dedicated keepers.

elephant eating


Elephants are extremely intelligent animals that display complex behaviors and have a high capacity for learning. As a result, keepers incorporate challenging training sessions into the elephants’ daily routines that provides both mental and physical stimulation. These behaviors help conduct daily health checks and provide daily health care, which is useful because humans and elephants never share the same unrestricted space at the Zoo. That means that no one ever goes into an exhibit with an elephant.

In addition to the Zoo’s training program, it has a cognitive research program that provides a mental workout for the elephants and documents the elephants’ mental acuity.

All of the Zoo’s veterinarians are trained and have experience providing elephant medicine, diagnostics and treatment for elephants in human care. Zoo keepers and scientists are also involved with clinical and/or field research of elephants. Some of the things they study include elephant anesthesia, wound management, infectious disease investigation, pharmacokinetic studies and reproduction.