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Elephant Update: Spike Settles In

  • Asian elephant Spike in the Elephant Barn.

This update was written by elephant keeper Kayleigh Sullivan.

It has been almost a week since Asian elephant Spike arrived at the Elephant Trails habitat. Since then, he has made himself right at home!

Our team is starting to get to know Spike. We love him already, which is pretty easy given his large, expressive eyes and overall calm demeanor. His personality is very laid back and chill; he is not fazed by the bustle of keepers around him. He is the epitome of a gentle giant.

A keeper from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay traveled up with Spike and has joined our team while he acclimates to his new home. She is a familiar face for him when almost everything else in his environment is new. We are learning about his particular personality quirks from her, as well as how she communicates with him and the specific cues she uses for training husbandry behaviors. This enables us to continue to care for him without pause.

While Spike is off-exhibit in quarantine, he has all sorts of enrichment to keep him mentally stimulated and encourage him to move about his indoor and outdoor enclosures. He has been busy foraging—figuring out how to get food out of our various puzzle feeders—and playing with a large tractor tire that he can push and wheel around the exhibit. In the wild, Asian elephants fell trees as they move through the forests, so the hefty tire enables him to exercise that natural behavior. In addition to these toys, he also has natural enrichment, such as logs, which he can debark. So far, his favorite enrichment item is a small log smothered in frozen peanut butter. When he found it, he immediately put it in his mouth, crunched down and salivated as he savored the treat!

Our six female elephants all reacted differently to his presence. Although he previously lived with Kamala, Maharani and Swarna at the Calgary Zoo, he will not be able to interact with them directly until he clears quarantine in a few weeks’ time. Maharani and Swarna seemed very excited to see him again. They raised their trunks in the air, smelling his scent. They were flapping their ears excitedly—we call that behavior “happy flappy ears!” Kamala showed interest in Spike at first, then quickly went on about her day.

Maharani sees Spike for the first time at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Maharani flapped her ears excitedly upon seeing Spike. Keepers call this behavior "happy flappy ears."

Shanthi seems extremely interested in Spike. She spends the majority of her time in an area that allows her to catch a whiff of his scent. Bozie is very focused on Shanthi and seems a bit disconcerted about Shanthi’s preoccupation with Spike. Ambika is being very cautious and staying as close as she can to Shanthi and Bozie, while at the same time trying to stay as far away from Spike as possible. This is a normal Ambika response to something new, but we anticipate she will get used to him.

We are looking forward to Spike’s meet-and-greet with the girls in the coming weeks!

This story appears in the April 2018 issue of National Zoo News.