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Keeper for the Day at the Elephant Reserve

OK, to tell you the truth, it is the most enjoyable part of my week to come in early on Saturday to work with the animals.  And naturally, I get a little ribbing from the keepers along the way.  So when I arrived a few minutes before 7 last Saturday, I figured I’d be one of the first ones there, only to find out that elephant trainer Val Nastold had been working since 5am!  Partly he started early since it was his week to collect the hay, straw, and poop from the special dumpsters around the Zoo that go to be composted, rather than to Rumpke Mountain.  But also, he admitted that an early start allowed him to get a little bit ahead, just in case I happened to slow things down by stopping to ask questions or tell stories.

Speaking of poop, naturally there is more poop up at the Elephant House than anywhere else at the Zoo.  It’s a simple equation – each of our four elephants eats about 250 pounds of food per day, but more than half – over 500 pounds- comes out the other end.  So first thing in the morning involves a lot of shoveling and big wheel barrows.  Following that, it’s bath time.  Each morning our elephants receive a warm water scrubbing and bath, that is both good for their skin and allows the keepers to take a good look at their skin, and especially their feet, to make sure everybody’s in good shape.  Our elephants all get regular pedicures.  However, instead of using a nail file, their keepers use giant rasps, sanders and electric planes to trim up their hooves.

For me, the most wonderful thing about being up close and personal with elephants is the look in their eyes.  They have a quiet knowing as they gaze at you that among people, I have only seen in Jane Goodall’s eyes.  Elephants have the largest brains of any land animals and are probably the smartest creatures in the Zoo.  In fact, scientists only list three groups of animals as ‘smart,’ in the ways that humans measure intelligence.  Whales, including dolphins; great apes, including, thank Goodness, us; and elephants.  All three groups live in social groups, have complex languages, and are good problem solvers.  So, naturally, they also have big brains.

Our Asian elephants have active and social lives, both indoors and out, here at the Cincinnati Zoo.  And as a result, working in the Elephant House is a busy and inspiring time.

Even if I slow things down on a Saturday morning.


1 Teresa { 04.02.11 at 5:41 am }

I thoroughly enjoyed my VIP elephant encounter earlier this year. Elephants are amazing.

2 Dr. Robert Horton { 04.07.11 at 9:53 am }

Disappointed in the fact zoo is posted open till 5 and yet they were closing the
aviary at 3:30: the train at 4, and carrousel at 3:20 many exhibits were not
open yet on a 70 degree weather day. Our first time at zoo and will be our last
at this one: paying full price in the afternoon and they shut down things early! Driving over 4 hours (roundtrip), Paying $75. for a half a day and with early closings of rides and exhibits just to have two crying children trying to understand why they would shut things down was not acceptable. During such hard times to raise money , they should at least give patrons have all rides etc open till five: Otherwise have posted: Zoo closes at 5, but many of the attractions within close and 3, 3:30 and 4.

3 D Bassist { 04.15.11 at 2:24 am }

The Zoo looks and feels more amazing than ever…just went there today. Thanks Thayne and crew for making it an experience. BTW, how do u (and many other Zoos) justify the ‘entrapment’ of intelligent species? I’m sure it’s mostly scientifically sound, and probably morally justifiable. But looking at a Polar bear pacing endlessly back and forth, or an enraged Gorilla staring with piercing eyes about the jovial onlookers at any Zoo seems somewhat immoral and wrong. Are these animals rescued from a bad place? Are they domestic from birth? I just hope they aren’t stolen from a homeland/environment. It seems Elephants are smart enough to revel in the pampering they receive from their kind zookeepers.

4 Stephanie Maynard { 06.16.11 at 1:38 pm }

Thayne! I have always wondered if we’re related somehow 🙂 I am quite the animal lover myself so it only makes sense!

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