Asian elephants are very fond of water – they can even suck it into their trunks and wash down their bodies. But have you ever wanted to hose down an elephant?
Recently I visited the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. to observe the bathing of their Asian elephants. I met with zookeepers Sean Royals and Marie Galloway to observe what it takes to care for these highly endangered animals.
Before, during and after the elephants’ showers, safety measures are in effect. Training tools are attached to their belts – like this target, below – to communicate specific information to the elephant. Sean and Marie each wear a fanny pack full of fresh fruits and training treats to reward an elephant’s positive behaviors.
Elephants sometimes roll on the ground to protect themselves from insect bites or the sun’s powerful rays. Since elephants can get quite dirty during the day, these three resident Asian elephants are scrubbed and rinsed every morning.
Sean and Marie clean the elephants by using a variety of materials including a hose, fresh water and animal shampoo (which contains lanolin and other moisturizing ingredients). An elephants’ skin can be up to an inch thick, so staff often use deck brushes to facilitate the cleaning process.
Zookeepers use a variety of contact methods while showering elephants, including free, blended and protected. Below, a 7’8″ tall, 5,600-pound, eight-year old bull elephant is cleaned and rinsed through a stall barrier, a protected contact approach.
Elephant trainers use bath time as a training opportunity, instructing the animals to complete tasks with a variety of commands, such as “stretch” and “ear.”
During their cleaning time, elephants also enjoy drinking water straight from the hose.
After their morning showers, these Asian elephants are rewarded with plenty of delicious snacks, like beet pulp shreds, oats and specially-formulated elephant chow pellets. In a single day, an elephant can eat up to 300 pounds of food.
And while the Asian elephant house at the National Zoo is currently under construction, this small herd has a state-of-the-art, innovative facility scheduled to open in 2011.
Want to see a video of a baby elephant getting a shower? Check out this adorable YouTube video captured by keeper Andy Durham at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
Across the other side of the world, there is a very different story. Every year, elephants kill hundreds of people in India. Out in the fields and down on the streets, people are trampled, impaled and battered to death by an animal considered sacred by many. Why do these intelligent, plant-eating creatures appear to be waging war against defenseless villagers?
The Dark Side of Elephants airs Friday April 30th at 9P et/pt on Nat Geo Wild.