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Winter mornings in the Zambezi Elephant Center

January is usually a quiet time for us here in the Elephant Department, and since nobody is around to see them in the cold mornings before the Zoo opens, we have zero qualms about taking advantage of our coworkers’ recalcitrance towards shifting out into the chilly habitats; we don’t really want to go outside either. We all know cold days are best enjoyed from the warmth and comfort of a cozy barn. Inside, the elephants gladly comply with our least requests, and move around from stall to stall so we can clean the night soil from around them. They go about their business, eating hay from a multitude of feeders, and companionably trunk wrestling. They enjoy hot showers and hard scrubs, their nails stay trimmed and their skin is moisturized, and they are content until the day warms up and the doors are opened, at which point they generally acquiesce to the notion of venturing out. They know that sun feels best on a cold day, and are secure in the knowledge that they can come back in whenever they want. Herman Melville had it right when he said “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”

On the keeper side of things, we use the quiet days to work on projects that mainly inconvenience the elephants. We’ll rototill the sand stalls in the Zambezi Elephant Center, making them loose and soft and just a little bit difficult for an elephant to walk through, because the extra effort on their part is good for their joints and feet. We frequently rotate their hay feeders and enrichment, moving things a little further out of reach and making access points smaller or more challenging to manipulate. One of the more subtle goals of our jobs as animal care professionals is to challenge the animals to work a little harder or think a little more about how best to get what they want, and the more the elephants have to work for their food, the more they seem to enjoy it.  We frequently see them contrafreeloading and ignoring something easy in favor of exerting more effort for an identical food, and we feel pretty good about that; loving inconvenience over indifferent service is a lesson for us all.

Of course, we would never expect any of our coworkers to work harder than we work ourselves, and make sure we’re driving and challenging every member of the team to work to the best of their potential. The elephants don’t get to walk through their freshly tilled stalls before one of the keepers spends a few hours trudging behind the rototiller to make the fresh furrows straight and perfect (with extra effort to get in the corners). A hay barrel doesn’t lift itself up, so it’s through our efforts and the help of a 10-foot ladder that the elephants get to eat from over their heads. Logs and browse are brought in with trucks and tractors, and the resulting chewed over sticks and stumps are hauled right back out (except for the ones around Abana Pond, which are strategically placed around the edge to prevent sand from washing into the pool during heavy rains). There are a lot of late lunches in the Elephant Center.

But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Hard work and long days keep us humble, and the privilege of a quiet morning inside a warm building with African elephants rumbling a greeting is payment unto itself.

Josh M.
Keeper III, Elephants

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