A day in the life of the Elephant Care Team
6:45 a.m.: Cool. For perhaps the only time in an Atlanta June day, the air is cool. I try to soak it in, enjoying my last sip of coffee as I power on my radio and cross the threshold of the Zambezi Elephant Center. The sun has not fully risen, and the building is dark on the inside. I step through to the other side to check on the elephants. One, two….and three. I see three elephants. Msholo is resting his head against the enrichment wall, Tara is drinking from the pool, and Kelly is picking at blades of grass she must have forgotten throughout the night.
7 a.m.: Boots laced up and the whole team here, we begin to shift the elephants into the Zambezi Elephant Center for breakfast. They all know we’re here by now and they wait eagerly for the hydraulic doors to open up. The elephants are called away from the doors individually. I call Msholo today; he seems excited. Once inside, it’s time for breakfast and Kelly gets her eye meds.
7:30 a.m.: Drip…The first drop of sweat falls off my brow and onto the ground as I heave piles of dung into the back of our gator. Each elephant eats between 150-200 pounds of food daily, and drinks anywhere between 20 and 50 gallons of water; that comes out to up to 300 pounds of poop each a day! It ain’t pretty work, but it’s honest.
9 a.m.: On the way out the door, we weigh each of the elephants as they step over a scale. Tara: 7,930 pounds. Kelly: 7,890 pounds. Msholo: 11,100 pounds. Altogether they weigh about as much as 10 Toyota Corollas!
9:30 a.m.: Listen to oldies as we clean the Zambezi Elephant Center. Rake. Scoop. Rake. Scoop. Sweat. Sweep. Scoop. Hose. Squeegee.
11 a.m.: Time to feed those hungry elephants again! Wipe the itchy hay off my arm after stuffing the elephant-proof hay boxes. These bad boys help slow down the elephants’ feeding. Wild elephants spend over half their day eating, so to most effectively replicate the activity of wild elephants, we try to use different types of feeders.
12 p.m.: Lunchtime. Change into a dry shirt and dig into leftover pasta. Try to ignore Josh and Caleb for a little while.
1:30 p.m.: Scrape! Msholo is due for a pedicure. The bottom of an elephant’s foot is composed of a ½ inch thick calloused pad of grooved skin that is constantly growing and toenails very similar to ours! With special tools I open up the grooves of his feet and file his nails to relieve any pressure and make sure nothing gets caught in his feet that might hurt. Msholo knows if he holds his foot up for us, he will get lots of delicious treats like apples, carrots, and maybe even some melon.
2:30 p.m.: Splash! We spray our big hose into the elephant habitat and Tara comes over for a well-deserved rinse. Tara has the darkest complexion of all our elephants, and this is probably because she is the keenest on baths!
4 p.m.: “Lean-in…Ear…Good girl!” Kelly leans in against the bollards and allows our veterinary technician, Joy, to draw blood from one of the large blood vessels on the back of her ear. Blood draws, like footcare, are one of the critical behaviors our elephants learn so that they can be involved with their own care. Our training is voluntary for the elephants, so if Kelly isn’t feeling it today, she just walks away, and we are okay with that.
5:30 p.m.: I shake the sand and hay out of my boots and wash the day’s grime off my face. Time to head home and rest up for tomorrow, which will be completely different! Every day working with elephants presents its own challenges and triumphs, and that’s what makes this job so incredible!
Keeper II, Elephants