Unpacking Their Trunks
Ruth occasionally submerges herself in the watering hole. Both elephants enjoy drinking and spraying water from the pool.
When Ruth was finally allowed to roam the outdoor yard of the brand-new elephant exhibit, she didn’t hesitate. She and her companion, Brittany, had moved to the indoor Elephant Care Center months before, but the majority of the outdoor exhibit wasn’t ready for them until late spring 2019. “The first day we let them out, Ruth looked out the door, saw a willow tree and went directly to the tree,” says Erin Dowgwillo, the Milwaukee County Zoo’s elephant care coordinator. Brittany was a little more cautious, watching Ruth for a few minutes from the safety of their demonstration yard. Once she saw nothing bad had happened to Ruth, she happily joined her in stripping bark off the trees.
The elephants now get most of their food from overhead feeders, helping them build up their trunk muscles.
Within a few weeks, the trees were stripped bare, but there has been plenty more for Ruth and Brittany to do this summer. They learned early on to check the enrichment wall daily for treats. In July they discovered the outdoor shower, which is motion activated. On hot days they turn it on, drink the water and then wallow in the mud the shower creates. Both of the elephants like to drink and spray water from the watering hole, and Ruth has submerged herself in it a few times, Dowgwillo says. Brittany enjoys lying down on the slopes of the hills because she prefers to lie on an angle instead of lying flat on the ground.
That’s one of the most important aspects of the new exhibit – choice. Giving the elephants more choices stimulates their minds and more closely mimics the situation of elephants in the wild. “They seem to enjoy being able to go wherever they want to go,” Dowgwillo says. Most of the time they have the option to go inside or outside, day or night. She notes that Ruth and Brittany often choose different activities. “At the old exhibit, they always had to do everything together. They like to be able to do their own thing.”
The exhibit also offers new feeding opportunities for Ruth and Brittany. Where they used to eat their food off the ground, they now get most of their food through overhead feeders. They have to lift their trunks to get the food, mimicking the way elephants in the wild grab browse from trees. At first, Brittany struggled to use the overhead feeders, but now she has built up the muscle strength necessary to do it, Dowgwillo says.
The new exhibit is more work for the keepers because they have a much larger area to clean and more enrichment activities to plan and maintain. But it’s worth it to see the girls enjoying themselves, Dowgwillo says. “We see them getting more choices, doing things on their own, exhibiting natural behaviors, just being elephants. That makes all the work we do rewarding.”
The elephant exhibit opened in May as the first portion of Adventure Africa, which will transform 25% of the Milwaukee County Zoo. The Zoological Society of Milwaukee is working to raise $25 million for Adventure Africa as a 50-50 partner with Milwaukee County on the new area.
Rendering courtesy of M.A. Mortenson Co.
Hippos Happy and Patti are next in line to get a new home. The Zoo broke ground in July on an exhibit that’s more than twice the size of the current exhibit and includes underwater viewing of the hippos.
Visit hippos.Win2Wild.com to learn more and donate to the new exhibit.
By Stacy Vogel Davis
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Alive magazine.