Thirty-eight appears to be the magic number in the Milwaukee County Zoo’s elephant habitat. That’s approximately how old longtime residents Ruth and Brittany are, and it’s also the age of the exhibit’s new resident, Belle. Belle joined the herd in November from the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in South Carolina, and she’s currently going through the introduction process with Ruth and Brittany. And while there’s no guarantee that future residents will be the same age, zoo-goers can expect to see mostly older elephants in the exhibit, says Tim Wild, Zoo curator of large mammals.
Belle arrived in Milwaukee from South Carolina in November.
One of the reasons the Zoo built the new exhibit was to allow more elephants to join the herd. Modern standards from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) require elephant exhibits to hold at least three elephants to meet the animals’ social needs. The Zoo’s habitat, which opened in May 2019, can hold up to five. The Zoological Society of Milwaukee, through contributions to its capital campaign, contributed half of the $16.6 million cost, with the other half coming from Milwaukee County.
In planning the exhibit, the Zoo decided against creating an elephant breeding facility, Wild says. “Zoos are moving toward keeping elephants within their family groups just like in the wild. So if we started having babies, we would be keeping them here. Even with all the space we have now, we would be limited at some point down the road. And forming a new breeding herd just wasn’t feasible because breeding animals are not available. It’s a very big undertaking, so we leave it to the experts that have been doing it for a while.”
As a result, the Zoo will house elephants that are not recommended to breed, whether for genetic reasons or because of their age. Older elephants need homes, too, Wild says. Many zoos, including Belle’s previous home, are eliminating their elephant exhibits because of the large requirements for space and resources to meet AZA standards. “The zoos that decided to renovate or build new facilities as we did have absorbed the older elephants that came out of those other zoos.”
Foot problems are common in older elephants, so keepers check their feet daily, filing the nails and trimming overgrowth when necessary.
The Milwaukee elephant keepers already have experience caring for older elephants because of their work with Ruth and Brittany, says Erin Dowgwillo, elephant care coordinator. “In older elephants, a lot of times we see arthritis and foot problems,” she says. “We focus a lot on aerobics and mobility and stretching.” The elephants are kept on strict diets to keep them at the proper weight, preventing extra stress on their joints. Keepers pay special attention to the elephants’ feet, filing the nails and trimming any overgrowth. The natural substrate in the new exhibit, including sand floors inside the Elephant Care Center, has already made a difference in keeping their feet healthier, Dowgwillo says.
By Stacy Vogel Davis
This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Alive magazine.