Elephants travel in the wild for survival—they move to find food and water so that they can stay alive. Studies have shown that in resource-rich environments, elephants roam less because they don't need to. We make sure our elephants have everything they need to survive and thrive. Although the elephants don't need to travel here at the Zoo, Elephant Trails give them ample opportunities to move around—indoors and out—through four separate yards, in four different pools, and up and down a wooded hillside trek. The exhibit is consistent with the amount of space Asian elephants use on a daily basis, according to a number of recent scientific studies. In addition, like all of our animals, the elephants get some exercise just by going through their daily care routine with keepers.
Our keepers and elephants get within touching distance, but never share the same space with elephants (though we would share unrestricted space with young calves). We follow the safety standards determined by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
We typically give the elephants access to as many indoor and outdoor areas as possible to give them choice of where to spend the night. Ambika and Shanthi typically choose to sleep indoors while Kandula sleeps both indoors and outdoors. The space is very flexible so it can be reconfigured in many different setups. This allows us to meet the needs of our elephants while offering as much choice, control and variety as possible.
We have a number of different kinds of substrates for the elephants. The bulk of the elephant space is covered in natural substrates (grass and sand outdoors, sand stalls inside), although we also have a number of enclosures that have a rubber coating on the floor. The rubber floors provide good cushioning and are also great when we need to have a cleanable surface or during the elephants' baths. There are also a few areas that have broom-finished concrete or pavement. The combination of hard and soft surfaces is great for the elephants because it gives them opportunities to choose areas most comfortable to them, encourages healthy wear on their toe nails and foot pads, and is good cushioning for their joints.
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. For example, the elephants have an opportunity to push around tires and other objects strung from the ceiling of their barn and on structures throughout the yard. They are also provided musical instruments and one elephant, Shanthi, has taken a particular interest in the harmonica. 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.
We've also been conducting a multi-year behavior study looking at how our elephants spend their day. This study will help assess the impact of changes in our facility, management and enrichment program.
Between November and March, the ECC is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Between April and October, the ECC is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. This doesn't mean that elephants will always be in the ECC during those hours—they could also be in the Elephant Barn, outside in the yards or on the Elephant Trek.
The Zoo's Department of Nutrition carefully develops 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.
The elephants eat a variety of food, from hay to browse (bamboo, mulberry and other appropriate leafy branches) to apples, oranges, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables.
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 grows throughout parts of Elephant Trails. Grass grows in about half of the yard space, which allows the elephants to graze naturally.
Although the Elephant Barn is closed to the general public, visitors do have an opportunity to get behind the scenes. Friends of the National Zoo offers a tour of Elephant Trails, featuring the state-of-the-art Barn and another vantage point, such as the Overlook, Bridge or Outpost. Tours are Wednesdays and Sundays at 8:15 a.m. as space allows, and last an hour and 15 minutes. They cost $40 per person 13 years old and older and $20 for children aged three through 12. Children two and under are free.
The National Zoo made a commitment to Asian elephants years ago. It was a very hard decision to find new homes for the giraffes, hippos and rhinos. But the best practices for elephant management have changed and we had to do what was best for the animals by turning their 1930s Elephant House into a state-of-the-art habitat. In its long-term strategic planning, the Zoo does have a vision for bringing back giraffes and rhinos, but not in the immediate future due to funding.