Caring for Elephants
Caring for elephants is a 24/7 task. It involves attending to their needs for food, shelter, medical care, and attention to their individuality. Each has a unique personality.
Each elephant eats between 2 and 4 square bales of hay and 16 pounds of sweet feed each day. The elephant department by itself uses over 80 bales of hay and 800 pounds of feed per day. In addition, elephants love fruits and vegetables, and often are given these as treats.
In Hugo, OK we have our feed and hay delivered to us, but while on tour we must purchase it from local suppliers. Our local sponsors help in locating where we can purchase hay and feed. We always plan ahead and carry sufficient amount of bales of hay at all times to insure that we will not run out while on tour.
We make arrangements in advance to have water available for both our animals and humans traveling with the circus. We have a water truck that is filled up several times a day from a local water source. Our elephants are watered on a regulated schedule and are watered at least 4 or 5 times a day. If the weather is hot or above a comfortable temperature, the elephants are watered more often.
Elephants require daily grooming, not only for the performance but also for their well being.
Bathing and Skin Care:
On a daily basis our elephants are washed with a special soap that contains oil. The oil in the soap helps to moisturize their skin. At least twice and sometimes three times a day our elephants are brushed off in preparation for being in the show. We use long handled brooms to brush of the elephants’ skin. Note: the name ‘Pachyderm’ refers to the thick skin of the elephant (pachys: thick; derma: skin). The thickness of the skin varies from very thin on the inside of the ears and around the mouth to about 2.5cm. on the elephant’s back and head.
During our performance we have a parade of performers and animals. This parade is called “Spec,” which is short for spectacular, and in this parade some of our elephants wear ornate blankets and are ridden by costumed performers.
Elephants love to play in water, and as often as possible they are allowed to play in a nearby stream, pond, or lake. Most of the elephants truly enjoy these opportunities, but we still have a few who would rather not venture into the water. Like some humans some are a little water shy. Elephants are said to have sweat glands between their toes but they keep cool by bathing and flapping their ears.
The skin around the elephants’ eyes is very sensitive and we put a vaseline around their eyes to help protect them. We do this at least every two days or as often as it is needed.
Sparse hair and bristles are found unevenly spread all over an elephant’s body. Most concentrations are around the eyes, ear openings, chin and the end of the tail. The amount of hair reduces with age and darkens in color. It is very coarse and tough. Often the hair is removed with clippers; this helps to prevent parasites from growing on their skin.
One of the more interesting grooming operations we perform on the elephants is the pedicure. Each toe of the foot has a nail attached to the skin and not directly to the toe bones. We use a small power file to clean and file the nail. This is done every 2 to 3 weeks or as often as it is needed. Elephants walk on their toes, although they appear to be flat-footed. The ‘heel’ of the foot is really a pad of fatty and elastic connective tissues.
Tusks are actually replacement teeth that grow at the rate of 17cm per year and are composed mostly of dentine. Not all elephants grow tusks. The Asian male grows long tusks but the Asian female only grows tusks that are about 3″ long. Also not all Asian females grow tusks. Both African males and females grow long tusks however. The tusks are cleaned regularly and are sometimes filed down in order to protect the other elephants.
Our elephants are given a regular annual check up by our vet and are seen every 30 days for a new health certificate. In addition, special tests are run periodically to ensure the elephants are not infected with TB (which is obtained by coming in contact with humans that are TB positive). Note: It has not been proven that any human can be infected with TB due to coming in contact with elephants. The most effective test is a trunk wash. A saline solution is squirted into the trunk and then the elephant squirts it back into a bag. The bag is then sent to a lab where bacteria are grown. The bacteria are then tested for TB and show the results accurately to be positive or negative. We also take blood samples weekly, which are used to help with the reproduction program. The blood tests show when the elephant is most likely to conceive and helps to monitor elephants that are already pregnant. An elephant is pregnant for 22 months.
Education and Training:
Our elephants are only trained through positive reinforcement. We call this the ‘Dookie’ system. It is important that both the animals and trainers have a mutual trust. There is one care keeper for every three elephants. That care keeper cleans the elephants, feeds them, waters them, and is responsible for those same three elephants every day.
A relationship is formed between the animals and the caretakers, which is very important in the training process. You have to have trust between the two or panic will arise. If an animal is in a panic stage it is most likely that the animal will not be trainable. It is important to be calm, patient, and only use positive reinforcement.
Transportation and Housing:
The circus moves in the “cool of the day” (either early mornings or late evenings) to provide the most comfort for transporting animals. Each elephant is loaded into a semi-trailer truck with the others in her herd or group.
We use five trucks to transport 16 elephants. The trucks are equipped with ventilation and are cleaned out each and every day. Our average move is 60 miles a day, but for the most part we travel less than 60 miles. When the elephants arrive on the circus grounds they are unloaded from the trucks and are put in corrals.
The same electrical fencing that is used for cattle and horses surrounds the corrals. Our elephants are rarely tethered. We provide an awning, not only for the elephants, but also for all of the animals, which helps protect them from the hot sun as well as the rain.