Suki the elephant celebrates her 58th birthday this September. We caught up with Elephant Manager Shannon to learn what she believes are Suki’s secrets to a long life. Shannon has cared for the elderly elephant for over 26 years since she first arrived at Point Defiance Zoo in 1996.
At 58, Suki has already lived far beyond the median life expectancy of 47 for female Asian elephants in human care. She has chronic medical conditions, including tuberculosis (TB), arthritis and uterine tumors, a condition similar to fibroids. Even so, the former circus elephant continues to thrive thanks to her dedicated team of keepers and veterinarians, who are experts at providing Suki with the highest level of care.
Shannon and Suki are about the same age, and as Shannon likes to say, “it’s just a number!”
“Suki is more intuitive than most humans I know, and she’s the smartest animal I’ve ever met,” says Shannon.
As Shannon speaks, you can hear her admiration and reverence for Suki. Like any best buds, Shannon and Suki have long chats several times a week. When Suki sees Shannon enter the barn, she begins to rumble and make squeaking noises.
When she does this, keepers post a sign on the elephant barn window for guests that reads: “If you hear loud noises, it’s just Suki excited to see her pal, Shannon!” Shannon greets Suki with head rubs and face scratches before settling into a long conversation.
“She’s wicked smart and opinionated,” says Shannon. “And she is very good at expressing her feelings, needs, and wants.”
Suki is very active and fit for her age. Her secret? Daily exercise, fresh fruit and veggies, and plenty of mental stimulation. Oh – and a lot of TLC, of course.
Suki receives plenty of exercise for her mind and body and several enrichments daily, ranging from customized activities to tasty treats. She actively participates in her health care – presenting her feet, trunk, ears and open mouth to her animal care team so her care team can examine her daily and swiftly address any medical issues.
That’s particularly important with elderly elephants, who, like humans, can develop more medical issues as they age.
Suki’s keepers lead her in daily stretching sessions to keep her fit and flexible.
“We ask her to do a wide range of exercises every day,” explains Shannon, who shares Suki’s care with a keeper team of seven.
“We do leg lifts, trunk lifts, bows (flexing one foot), and salute (lifting one foot and trunk). We also do balancing exercises where she lifts her right front foot and back left foot for a couple of seconds, sets them down, and then switches to the other set of feet.”
Then there’s the elephant yoga version of “Downward Dog” – front legs bent, back legs straight – leading into a lying-down stretch of all four limbs.
The team rewards each behavior with Suki’s daily produce diet: fresh apple or pear slices.
“If she does something more difficult or new, she gets her absolute favorite, which is watermelon,” Shannon says.
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Before giving Suki any watermelon, Smith and the team cut off the rind. Elephants wear through six sets of teeth; at 58, Suki has worn through all of them. So, keepers spend an hour each day prepping her food so it doesn’t need chewing and is easier for her to digest: chopping, thinly slicing and mashing her veggies and fruit.
Suki’s hay is pre-chopped, packed by the team into overnight feeders that offer her timed grazing (an elephant eats both day and night).
And there’s an entire area of the Zoo devoted to growing the kinds of trees that make great elephant munching: willow, maple, and banana leaves. In total, Suki enjoys 22 different types of fruits and vegetables.
It’s all part of a healthy diet that keeps her in great shape – with the occasional treat like a vegan apple pie for her birthday.
Another big part of staying healthy as a senior – whatever your species – is getting mental stimulation. Elephants are highly intelligent and strong, so keeping Suki supplied with new puzzles and other enrichments that she won’t instantly destroy is an ongoing job.
“She has balls, barrels, puzzle feeders and more,” lists Shannon. “We’re continually dreaming up fun, creative ways to challenge and stimulate her.”
Suki especially enjoys puzzle feeders — extracting food that keepers have hidden inside large, sturdy containers attached throughout her yard. Placing food in hard-to-reach places supports natural behaviors and encourages Suki to stretch and strengthen her muscles.
Since elephants sleep only about four hours daily, staff also put interesting items in Suki’s sleeping area to keep her engaged around-the-clock.
Outside, there are two pools and a mud bath to tempt Suki, but Shannon says she’s not a water-loving elephant and takes a dip only if it’s over 90 degrees. Inside, she loves drinking hot water and gets a personal hose from her keepers every morning and afternoon.
In addition to cutting-edge veterinary care, Suki receives a lot of daily TLC from her keepers. Her pedicures alone take about a half-hour daily: filing 16 toenails (she has 20 toes in total), 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 Shannon.
This tactile care is only possible thanks to “restricted contact” – a way of caring for elephants that Point Defiance Zoo helped pioneer, in which safety barriers separate animals and humans to protect both at all times.
Finally, Suki receives plenty of one thing that makes a massive difference in the senior quality of life: lots of loving attention.
“Suki has always been very generous in her relationship with me,” says Shannon. “We have a wonderful bond. She interacts well with everyone on our team, but she does seem extra excited to see me. That’s so rewarding. Suki has always had a strong opinion about who cares for her, so when she says you’re okay, that’s a big deal.”
When asked what it means to see Suki turn 58, Shannon says, “Every day I have with her is special.”