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.