Mar 20

Congratulations, Sarah Armstrong: Coordination and Implementation of the Elephant Program

Welcome to part three of our blog series highlighting the recipients of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium Director’s Award, which honors individuals from the zoo staff who completed projects in 2016 that had a notable positive impact on zoo operations and/or the guest experience; or showed significant costs savings or added tangible value to a process or park operation or animal husbandry in general.

In honor of this month’s one-year anniversary of elephants returning to Omaha, Elephant Manager Sarah Armstrong talks about how she and her team prepared for their arrival.

OZF: The Director's Award is for coordination and implementation of the elephant program. That seems like an almost elephant-sized task on its own. Can you walk us through
the process?

SA: I started working at the zoo in 2002, but in June 2011, my husband was transferred with his job to St. Louis so I had to leave. When I moved back to Omaha in 2014, I knew I wanted to come back home to the zoo. They asked me if I'd be willing to coordinate the elephant program, and, of course, I said yes. At that time, there had already been a lot of coordination at a much higher level that I was not involved in, and we were working to obtain the permits. I began traveling to other zoos with top elephant programs: San Diego, Dallas, St. Louis, etc., and observing what they were doing. As I drafted our program, I also kept an eye on construction here in Omaha to ensure that the habitat met the needs of the elephants. For example, they were planning to run a water line underneath the ground, where the elephants could dig down and get to it, so we had to change that. I put a lot of protocols in place, but it’s hard to do without actual animals in the barn. Once the elephants arrived, we scrapped almost everything and started over again. It takes quite a while to build a program. We hadn’t had elephants in years and now we had a brand new barn, brand new elephants and a brand new team. It’s been a unique opportunity and it’s still continuing to take shape.

OZF: Did anything surprise you?

SA:  It surprised me how different wild elephants are from zoo elephants. So many things I saw in other zoos did not apply to these animals, because they didn’t even know what a person was, or if we meant something positive. But I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly they learned and understood. It was literally just a couple of days for them to start to recognize us as a good thing. Within two weeks, we could transfer them, which involves them walking with us on cue, and then coming back on station so we could close the heavy, hydraulic doors without risk of injuring an animal. We were also able to get them to station on our scale, so we could begin to monitor their weights.

OZF: What do they eat?

SA: We go through one semi-trailer load full of hay every two months and we try to give them as much browse as we can. Their bodies are designed to work with browse. They eat the small branches whole, and strip the bigger ones to bare wood. It’s a daily part of their diet. We’ve actually partnered with the city of Omaha and OPPD. When they’re out trimming trees and branches for power lines, they save them for us. Before we began those relationships, my crew used to spend two-to-three hours a day, just harvesting browse. Now it comes in dump truck loads.

OZF: It's been a year. How are the elephants acclimating?

SA: They have settled in. Their cortisol levels, which we measure through fecal analysis, have come down, and they’ve gotten used to the daily workings of the zoo. They’re still acclimating to really large crowds when there's a lot of commotion, and they’re still getting used to the train’s rumble and vibration. We strive to maintain their wildness. The best thing we can do for them is to keep them enjoying their time with their herd mates, feeding, foraging, playing and interacting with each other. The longer they’re here, the more play behavior we see, and the more interactive they are with each other. Of course, the younger ones had an easier time acclimating. Our oldest, Jayei, is in her early 20s and she has assumed the leadership role. She will take the longest to acclimate because she has to look out for all the others.

OZF: What have been some of the most rewarding moments?

SA: There have been so many. From the time they came out of the crates, when Jayei reunited with her young daughter, Omma. Omma was the last animal out of the crate and went over and nestled under her mother’s chin. It was beautiful to watch. Our elephants came to us from two groups, not one cohesive herd, but all of the elephants interact with each other as herd mates should. They’re getting more comfortable in their surroundings. The first time we gave them the choice to go outside, they didn't go – the barn had become their place comfort and familiarity. But, as the summer progressed it was great to see them spend more and more time outside. In the evenings, when everyone's gone, they're out doing their thing: working through the browse and using their muscles in different ways. You can really see their comfort level increase every day.

It’s also been really rewarding to see how excited everyone in Omaha has been. The elephant program wouldn’t be the success it is without their support. And that of my team. Everyone puts in extra hours – you can’t make them go home.

Armstrong would like to extend special thanks to her team: Kaitlyn Wiktor, Emily Wiley, Mitch Anderson, Holly Thomas, Jill Voss, Kirstie Lindsay, Jake Tostenson and Matthew Day. The elephant habitat was part of the $73 million African Grasslands project funded by the generosity of Omaha Zoo Foundation donors.