Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Accidents" Will Happen!

Beco, left, an Asian elephant, is gently pushed by Connie, his “aunt” in the Columbus Zoo’s elephant family. Last week, a shoving match between Beco’s mother and Connie startled zoo visitors.

July 2, 2012

The scene was startling: two massive, bloodied elephants shoving each other as a young elephant huddled between them.
Not what you’d expect when you take your kids to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for a Sunday outing.
But what looked like an extreme pachyderm fight last week was in fact a mama elephant, Phoebe, correcting her 3-year-old son, Beco, and an elephant “aunt,” Connie, unhappy about the discipline.
“It’s 100 percent normal behavior that we’ll always see with females and a young male,” said Dusty Lombardi, the zoo’s director of living collections. “What made it noticeable was that Phoebe had broken her tusk in April, it hasn’t healed and there was some blood.”
The incident highlights a reality of modern zoos — animals act more naturally because, more and more, they live in social groups similar to the wild rather than in the solitary, small enclosures they used to live in.
“Thirty years ago, when we didn’t keep them in proper social groups, you wouldn’t see this kind of thing,” Lombardi said. “You wouldn’t see normal behavior for that animal; you might just see an animal pacing back and forth or staring back at you.”
For example, gorilla babies used to be taken from their mothers and raised by humans. That happened in 1956 at the Columbus Zoo when Colo became the first gorilla born in captivity.
Zookeepers thought caged mothers wouldn’t care for their offspring.
Zoo enclosures were all about maintaining the safety of animals, visitors and keepers, said Harry Peachey, an assistant curator at the Columbus Zoo.
“We knew if they weren’t together, they wouldn’t fight,” he said. “But that was a little misguided.”
Zookeepers eventually realized that wasn’t healthy for the animals and moved toward larger exhibit spaces with more natural settings and animal groupings.
“Ultimately, that presents things for visitors to see that they wouldn’t see otherwise,” Peachey said.
For the gorillas, Lombardi said, “It became obvious to us that we needed to figure out what the proper social groups were, and we realized you can’t just have a male and a female together.”
Now, the mothers raise their own young with the help of other gorillas in their social group, and zoo visitors can watch their interactions.
“There’s a lot of extended family stuff that goes on in the animal world,” Lombardi said. “The larger the group, usually the better (it is) for the animal.
“There’s always going to be a little tiff here or there. But it’s enriching for them to have to deal with life issues.”
That includes animal deaths, both violent and natural.
At the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park last year, a female African elephant died after an altercation with another elephant in her herd. The multigenerational group of elephants lives in a 6-acre outdoors area.
San Diego Zoo spokeswoman Christina Simmons said although zookeepers don’t know exactly what happened that day, rough play, pushing and shoving are typical social behaviors among elephants.
“It’s something that happens in the wild,” she said. “They can slip or run into each other. Whatever happened, one of our elephants had severe traumatic injuries.”


The zoo did not change the elephants’ exhibit or social grouping.
Last year, when Coco, a Columbus Zoo elephant, collapsed and died, zookeepers gave the other elephants time with the body because they knew elephants in the wild mourn their dead.
The elephants touched Coco’s body with their trunks and Coco’s son, Beco, put his head behind his father’s head and pushed, as if trying to help him up, Peachey said.
Lombardi said the zoo uses incidents such as the Phoebe-Connie tiff as a learning moment.
In that case, zoo visitors were alarmed, and zookeepers separated the elephants for a few minutes. After determining that none of the elephants was seriously injured, keepers reunited the family, she said.

“Beco knows how to play Connie and Phoebe, just like a human kid,” Lombardi said. “He’s a punk. But we want him to be. It’s healthy for him.”

Courtesy of John Goodall

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