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Happy Birthday, Maharani!

  • Close-up of Asian elephant Maharani's face.

This update was written by elephant keeper Kayleigh Sullivan.

Female Asian elephant Maharani is turning 29 years old Sunday, July 14, and we are celebrating with her favorite thing—food! To complement her name, which means “princess” in Hindi, our Department of Nutrition Sciences created a giant princess-themed cake made of frozen, diluted fruit juice. Since July is one of the hottest months of the year, it will be a welcome and refreshing treat. Stop by the Elephant Outpost and the Elephant Trek at 11 a.m. Sunday to watch Rani enjoy her cake during our keeper talk.

Maharani’s appetite is infamous. Boy, that girl can eat! At times, she can be a bit of a food hog. Every food is her favorite food—especially if another elephant is eating it. We have even spotted her taking hay straight from Spike’s trunk. Normally, a bull would not tolerate that, but Spike is such a good-natured elephant that he does not seem to mind.

We have to be mindful about feeding certain foods to the other elephants out of Rani’s site. We use high-value treats, like apples and peanut butter, to administer the elephants’ medications. If she sees the apple or catches a whiff of the peanut butter, she makes it known that she wants that treat, too, in no uncertain terms.

Most of the time, Maharani is very playful, energetic and eager to learn new things. When she is excited about something, her vocalizations are out of this world. Rani’s enthusiasm is infectious and often gets the other elephants running toward her to see what all of her excitement is about. Sometimes, I find myself hooting and hollering with her! 

Fetching Frisbees is one of Maharani’s favorite activities. It is also and a great form of exercise for her and helps burn up some of her extra energy. I will throw the disc as far as I can, and she has to use all of her senses to find the disc and bring it back to me. For doing so, she receives a treat, of course. This “trade” behavior has a practical application, too. If a foreign object fell into the elephant habitat, Maharani would know to bring it to the keepers and trade it for a reward.

Rani has a bit of a dramatic side to her personality, which can make working with her challenging at times. Something that may be no big deal to our other elephants—like scrubbing their tails and bellies during a bath—are big moments for Rani. Over the past few years, Maharani and I have developed a strong, trusting relationship as part of our husbandry training program. She has mastered voluntary blood draws, injection training and ultrasound exams. It is extremely rewarding to help her overcome her personal hurdles and watch her face light up when she does a new behavior correctly! Check out photos of the behaviors she has learned in our A Day in the Life of an Elephant Keeper diary. 

Maharani and Spike have a recommendation to breed from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for Asian elephants, and we have observed breeding behavior between them over the last few months. It is too early to tell if she is pregnant, but the elephant team is working closely with Zoo veterinarians and our endocrinology lab to monitor her hormones for any changes that indicate she is (or isn’t) pregnant. We will be sure to keep you posted!

Love elephants? Don’t miss daily elephant keeper talks at 11 a.m. at the Elephant Outpost and 4 p.m. at the Elephant Community Center. View the full schedule of animal encounters on the Zoo’s website.