How the St. Louis Zoo cares for geriatric elephants

Previously these days, Donna bought some pampering — a pedicure and a bathtub.

Donna is a single of 3 “golden girls” at the St. Louis Zoo. Alongside with Pearl and Ellie, the triumvirate of elephants celebrated their 50th birthday past year. They are beating the actuarial odds also. The median life expectancy for Asian elephant females underneath human treatment is 47.5 decades.

Ray Meibaum


St. Louis Zoo

Katie Pilgram-Kloppe is the zoological manager at the St. Louis Zoo’s River’s Edge.

“To have 3 of them that have reached the age of 50 is just extraordinary,” described Katie Pilgram-Kloppe, zoological supervisor of the River’s Edge at the zoo.

Donna was receiving the pedicure simply because foot treatment is important for elephants, particularly as they age. Some of the older female elephants at the zoo, Pilgram-Kloppe claimed, can weigh around 8,000 lbs ..

Preserving the 3 geriatric elephants nutritious is essential due to the fact they participate in a critical job among the the 9 full elephants that are living there, primarily the more youthful kinds.

“They are there to help sort of instruct them what it truly is like to dwell in a dominant woman culture,” Pilgram-Kloppe mentioned.

Mainly, the feminine elephants are in demand — and solid feminine social teams are not unusual regardless of whether in the wild or captivity. Which is mainly because male elephants will occasionally dwell by itself or find more compact bachelor herds.

In the wild, the male elephants “might be venturing from unique team to different team of females,” Pilgram-Kloppe said.

Keepers at the St. Louis Zoo also hold elephants healthy with operant conditioning. It is uncomplicated, said Pilgram-Kloppe, in that “it’s applied with good reinforcement.”

“In layman’s terms, if I requested Donna to carry her foot in the air for me, I may well give her a verbal cue, indicating ‘foot,’ and as she responds by lifting that foot up, then I’m gonna say ‘good,’ and possibly give her a banana later on.”

Hear: Caring for the St. Louis Zoo’s ‘golden girls’

That type of conditioning is used to generate other wanted behaviors that mimic elephants’ pure behaviors these types of as them laying down in sand to give by themselves a dust bath or standing on their hind legs to access leafy tree boughs.

Pilgram-Kloppe has worked at the St. Louis Zoo for about 13 a long time and became zoological supervisor in 2017. She knows a great deal but claims there’s continue to a great deal remaining for her to study about elephants.

“I consider they can instruct us just as a lot as we can educate them,” she stated. “And so I seriously do cherish the instances that I get to interact with them on a a person-on-1 basis. They are so elaborate and clever animals that I just value remaining in a position to enable care for them.”

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