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Elephant Care
Elephant Care

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

Elephant Manager Shannon Smith has cared for Suki, 54, and Hanako, 55, since they arrived here in the late-1990s, and has developed strong bonds with them. Our highly trained and compassionate keepers have a combined total of more than 41 years of caring for Suki and Hanako.


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

How We Care

Our elephants participate in their care by presenting their feet for inspection and cleaning, lifting their trunks, opening their mouths 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 and Hanako also participate in routine exercise and enrichment programs and regularly receive special treats like fresh bamboo leaves, a variety of fruit and the watermelons they love to stomp and eat.


Hanako the elephant.
Hanako the elephant.

Hanako’s Health Challenges

Hanako was diagnosed in spring 2018 with cancer in her left front foot.

  • Our veterinary staff, led by head veterinarian, Dr. Karen Wolf, is working with a veterinary oncologist to treat the cancer.
  • They report progress in some areas and setbacks in others. A variety of treatments have helped arrest the spread of cancer in some areas of her foot, but not in others.
  • In addition, Hanako has some age-related arthritis.
  • Our elephant care staff tends to Hanako’s needs daily and reports any changes they observe to the veterinary team.
  • Hanako’s cancer treatments have included a form of topical chemotherapy that targets cancer cells, cryotherapy (freezing diseased tissue with liquid nitrogen so it can be removed); and photodynamic (or light-based) therapy.
  • All of these are aimed at slowing the progression of the disease.
  • Complete removal of the cancer is not an option due to its size, location, and invasion of surrounding tissues. Surgically removing the large, cancerous area would affect Hanako’s ability to stand and walk.
  • Hanako has been a beloved member of our Point Defiance Zoo family for the past 21 years. Our staff and guests have developed strong bonds with her.


Frequently Asked Questions


How long will Hanako be able to live with this cancer?

We don’t know. We are doing everything we can to arrest its spread. Hanako will live out her life at Point Defiance Zoo under the expert care of experienced elephant keepers and veterinarians who know her well. At 55, she is considered a geriatric elephant and has already surpassed the median life expectancy of 47 (according to statistics from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) for a female Asian elephant.


Is Hanako showing any signs of pain?

Hanako sometimes shows signs of discomfort from her age-related arthritis. She is receiving treatments to help slow the progression of arthritis and to help maintain her comfort. Our veterinarians and elephant keepers continue to closely monitor her and address all medical needs immediately.


How is Suki doing? Does Suki know that Hanako is sick?

Our other female Asian elephant, 54-year-old Suki, continues to be in good health. We don’t know if Suki knows that Hanako is sick. However, Suki’s keepers monitor her closely and report that she has not been acting differently.


Would Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium get another elephant when Hanako or Suki eventually dies? What are your long-term plans for the elephant habitat?

We are committed to providing the highest quality of care to Suki and Hanako throughout their lifetimes. This is their 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.


A Home for Elephants

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.