Mar 27

The Elephant March (Part 2)

It’s hard to believe, but this month marks the second anniversary of the arrival of our elephants at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

The gang has changed a lot since they arrived from Swaziland in March 2016, and by now they’re completely acclimated to their life at the zoo. “You really see it in the training,” says Mitch Anderson, a senior elephant keeper at the zoo. “There’s a two-way trust that’s grown between the elephants and their keepers.”

Since all training and blood draws at the zoo are voluntary, this trust is key to the elephants’ enrichment and well-being. Anderson says that when they first arrived at the zoo, the elephants – particularly the older ones – weren’t comfortable presenting their trunk to keepers, or their ears for blood draws, but now they all do it consistently. “It’s a 180 degree change,” Anderson says.

The elephants have also become more comfortable with each other – in fact the girls are together all the time. “If one of them gets left in the yard, and the others are down the hill, they start trumpeting and running toward each other.” Anderson says, adding that Lou, who joined the herd from the Toledo Zoo last year, also likes to hang out with the girls.

That’s a good thing because Lou is cleared to breed with all of the female elephants at the zoo. The keepers are hoping he’ll breed with Jayei first because she is the matriarch and she can show the younger elephants how to be a good mother.

While the elephants have built a rapport with each other and the keepers, they tend to not pay too much attention to zoo guests. “People are not part of the social dynamic in the wild, so we try to be sure they have their own world,” says Anderson.

The fact that the herd doesn’t seem to know or care that they have an audience makes them all the more fun to watch. “People get especially excited to see Lou. He's a big boy -- and he could still double in size – and he has big tusks. He’s what you think of when you think of an elephant,” says Anderson. “Everyone also loves to see the two little girls Omma and Lolly playing together. They’re kind of goofballs.”

Visitors can also see elephant training in action during the demonstrations in the training amphitheater – there’s a demo schedule every day this summer. Anderson sees this as a key opportunity to teach people about elephants in the wild and spread the word about the tragic effects of poaching. “Our elephants at the zoo are ambassadors. We’re helping them make sure that wild elephants are represented and have our support.”