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Elephant Care

Caring for our elephant

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium keepers and veterinarians are experts at providing the highest quality of care for our elderly Asian female elephant Suki.

Elephant Manager Shannon Smith has cared for 56-year-old Suki since she arrived here in the late-1990s, and has developed a strong bond with her. Our highly trained and compassionate keepers have a combined total of more than 47 years of caring for Suki.


Senior keeper Shannon Smith with Suki the elephant.
Elephant manager Shannon Smith with Suki.

How We Care

Suki voluntarily participates in her care by presenting her feet for inspection and cleaning, lifting her trunk, opening her mouth and engaging in other behaviors that allow keepers and veterinarians to identify any medical issues or concerns early and address them swiftly.

That’s particularly important with elderly elephants who, like humans, can develop more medical issues as they age.

Suki also participates in routine exercise and enrichment programs and regularly receives special treats like fresh leafy browse, a variety of fruit and the watermelons she loves to stomp and eat.

Remembering Hanako

Hanako, a beloved elderly Asian elephant who came to Tacoma two decades ago, was humanely euthanized on the evening of February 15, 2020 after a severe decline in her health. Learn more.

Remembering Hanako

  • Hanako the elephant.Hanako had significant and chronic medical conditions. She had been treated for cancer since 2018 and was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2019. She also suffered from advanced joint disease.
  • At 56, Hanako was considered geriatric among Asian elephants. The median life expectancy for females of her species in human care is 47 years, according to statistics from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
  • Hanako was buried at an off-exhibit location at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, our sister zoo. Several of our staff members accompanied Hanako and oversaw her burial to ensure she was buried with respect and dignity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Suki grieving from the loss of Hanako?
Suki and Hanako both have demonstrated anti-social behavior during their lifetimes, and they have not shared the same space together in recent years. We can’t say what Suki thinks or feels about Hanako’s absence, but we do know that animals generally recognize the passing of a barn mate. Our zoo animal care and veterinary teams are closely monitoring Suki and spending extra time with her.

Will Suki be lonely?
We don’t believe so. Suki has strong bonds with her keepers and veterinary team members who care for her daily. And she enjoys a busy day with routine care, exercise and enrichments that keep both her mind and body active. Suki will continue to live at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium under the watchful and expert care of our staff for the duration of her life. We are committed to caring for Suki.

Will Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium get another elephant? What are your long-term plans for the elephant habitat?
Suki has a demonstrated history of anti-social behavior with other elephants. In addition, Suki’s tuberculosis diagnosis prevents us from putting another elephant at risk. We are committed to providing the highest quality of care to Suki throughout her lifetime. This is her home and has been for more than 20 years. Our long-term goal is to transition from caring for elephants to caring for another species in need of conservation support.

I thought the Association of Zoos & Aquariums required accredited zoos with elephants to maintain herds of at least three. How did you have only two? And how can you keep only one?
Suki and Hanako both had demonstrated anti-social behavior and an inability to get along with other elephants. Due to this, and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s expertise in the care of such animals, the Zoo has a waiver from this rule. AZA, recognizing Suki’s unique personality and long history at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, has agreed Point Defiance Zoo should remain her home.

Why not send Suki to an elephant sanctuary?
Suki has lived much of her adult life at Point Defiance Zoo. She has an expert care team that knows her well and loves her. She receives excellent nutrition, medical care, exercise and enrichment through a care program that is tailored – and continually updated – just for her. Point Defiance Zoo is her home, and it is the best place for her to live out her golden years. We are committed to her for the remainder of her life.

A Home for Suki

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, as a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, has a strong program of elephant care that meets high standards of animal care, nutrition, exercise and enrichment. We were a leader in pioneering protected contact and positive reinforcement in elephant care.