Shannon Smith stands outside on a fall day, calling out encouragement.
“Foot!” she requests. Across the yard, her “buddy” of 24 years slowly lifts a leg, then puts it back down.
“Good!” exclaims Smith, and offers an apple slice.
It’s exercise time at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and Smith is leading Suki the elderly Asian elephant through a vital part of her daily routine.
“It’s like elephant yoga,” explains Smith, assistant curator at the elephant barn, who has worked with Suki since the elephant arrived at the Zoo 24 years ago. A former circus elephant, she’d been cared for at a Midwest zoo before finding a home in Tacoma. “It’s really important for her to do these stretches and exercises to keep mobile and healthy.”
This year, Suki turns 56 years old – that definitely puts her in the super-senior category for a species whose female median life expectancy in human care is 47.
And Suki is very active and fit for her age. Her secret? Something that most human seniors could take a tip from: daily exercise, fresh fruit and veggies, and plenty of mental stimulation. Oh – and TLC, of course.
“We have a lot of different behaviors that we ask her to do for exercise,” explains Smith, who shares Suki’s care with a keeper team of five.
“We do leg lifts, bows (flexing one foot), trunk up, salute (lifting one foot and trunk), and balancing exercises where she lifts her right front and back left foot for a couple of seconds, then sets them down and switches.”
Then there’s the elephant version of Down Dog – front legs bent, back legs straight – leading into a lying-down stretch of all four limbs.
The team spends about an hour a day on the workout, rewarding each behavior with Suki’s daily produce diet: fresh apple or pear slices, or maybe some steamed sweet potato.
“If she does something more difficult or new, she gets her absolute favorite, which is watermelon,” Smith says.
Eat Your Fruit and Veggies
Before giving Suki any watermelon, though, Smith and the team cut off the rind. Elephants get six sets of four molars at birth, and at 56 Suki has worn through all of them except one single tooth. So the team spends another hour each day prepping her food so it doesn’t need chewing: chopping, steaming, slicing or mashing veggies and fruit.
Her hay comes pre-mulched, packed by the team into overnight feeders that offer her timed grazing (elephants eat both day and night).
And there’s a whole area of the Zoo devoted to growing the kinds of trees that make great elephant munching: willow, maple, banana leaves.
It’s all part of a healthy diet that keeps her in great shape – with the occasional treat like a vegan banana-peanut-butter birthday cake.
Puzzles and Challenges
Another big part to staying healthy as a senior – whatever your species – is to get mental stimulation. Elephants are highly intelligent and strong, so keeping Suki supplied with fresh puzzles and enrichment that she won’t instantly destroy is an ongoing job.
“She has balls, barrels, puzzle feeders and so many other items,” lists Smith.
This includes night-time activity. Elephants only sleep around four hours a day, so staff put interesting items into Suki’s sleeping area to keep her engaged.
“There’s a buoy hanging up about six feet high,” says Smith. “She walks past, checks it out and whacks it with high-flying kicks, both front and back feet! She’s more agile than I am, and puts many younger elephants to shame.”
(How do staff know what Suki does at night? There’s a camera in her barn, and they monitor the overnight footage every morning.)
Outside, there are two pools and a mud bath to tempt Suki, but Smith says she’s really not a water-elephant, and only decides to take a dip if it’s over 90 degrees. Inside, she loves drinking hot water and gets a personal hose morning and afternoon.
As well as getting the best and latest in veterinary care, Suki gets a lot of daily keeper TLC. Her foot care alone takes about half an hour daily: filing 16 toenails (she has 20 toes in total) with a foot-long rasp, trimming the pads on the bottom of her feet to keep her walking comfortably and applying hoof flex to moisturize her cuticles.
“And she loves getting scratches on her tongue, behind her ears and on her tail,” adds Smith. It’s a tactile care that is only possible thanks to the technique of “protected contact” – a way of caring for elephants that Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium helped to pioneer, in which a safety barrier is kept between animals and humans at all times to protect both.
Finally, Suki has always gotten plenty of one thing that makes a huge difference in senior quality of life: lots of loving attention.
“Suki has always been very generous with her relationship with me,” says Smith. “We have a wonderful bond. She is wonderful with everyone on the team, but she does seem extra excited to see me. That’s so rewarding. She’s our oldest land mammal here at the Zoo, and I’ve been caring for her for over two decades. Suki has always had a strong opinion on who works with her, so when she says you’re okay, that’s a pretty big deal.”