Picture I took on a visit to the Fresno zoo in April...
Tuesday, Jun. 15, 2010
Zoo elephants put on diet that cuts calories and increases exercise
FRESNO, Calif. -- Shaunzi and Kara are the zoo's biggest losers.
Together, the once-portly pachyderm pair has lost a ton - 2,175 pounds, to be exact - after keepers at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo put the two on a diet. The result, they hope, will be longer and healthier lives for the elephants.
Shaunzi, the larger of the two, started the weight-loss program in January 2009 at 10,245 pounds and now weighs 9,135 pounds - down more than 10 percent. Kara's results have been similar. Tipping the scales at 9,800 pounds in January 2009, she was down to a shapelier 8,735 pounds at a weigh-in late last month.
Zookeepers around the world are cutting calories and increasing exercise for animals who can suffer from too much food and too little room to roam. The Fresno zoo embarked on the elephant slimming campaign after getting the ability to weigh them regularly in January 2009.
"We knew they were heavy, but we didn't know just how heavy," said Harold Mountan, the zoo's assistant animal curator.
Zoo officials learned just how large "the girls" were after using $5,000 in Measure Z money to buy an elephant scale. Previously, they borrowed a truck scale periodically from the California Highway Patrol, Mountan said.
Today, zookeepers keep tabs on Shaunzi and Kara with regular weigh-ins and - in addition to changes in their diet - make them work to find food, as their cousins in the wild must do.
A couple times a day, Shaunzi and Kara are confined to the cave portion of their enclosures while zookeepers quickly bury fruits and vegetables under the sand and hang bags of hay and food pellets in barrels on towers inside the enclosure.
To get their food, the elephants must stretch, dig, push or prod with their trunks or legs. They slam barrels with their trunks to release a few food pellets or reach for hay bags, and they must correctly position the barrels and bags to release the food. They use their trunks to sniff out food underneath the sand, occasionally cradling a piece of produce in curled trunks before making it disappear.
They also have a separate exercise regimen, not unlike deep knee bends and stretching for humans, that also improves their mobility, Mountan said.
Enhancing activity and reduced-calorie diets also are being used for other animals at the Fresno zoo, said Scott Barton, zoo director.
"Weight is really important," he said. "We are looking at the factors that cause obesity, the same factors as we do in the human population."
Although the diet and exercise program is relatively new to Chaffee, it's standard in many other places - because in zoos today, thin is in.
There was a time when zoo officials were excited to talk about their large animals, said Harry Peachey, curator of mainland Asia animals at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.
"If you had an 800-pound gorilla in your collection you would brag about it," he said. "Now, you would be embarrassed to say that in front of your peers."
Studies have found that zoo gorillas had a higher incidence of heart disease, and zookeepers believe it's caused by overly generous diets, Peachey said.
Perception is sometimes an issue, too.
A male lion at the Columbus Zoo is often viewed by visitors as skinny, but Peachey said it looks exactly as it would in the wild.
"I think Americans equate food with happiness and we force that upon the animals we're responsible for," he said. "We have to recognize it's not good for us and it's not good for them either ... the animals we are responsible for don't have a choice and it's a responsibility we have to take seriously."
The first elephant weight-loss program began about nine years ago at San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. Jeff Andrews, associate curator for mammals, realized how much thinner elephants appeared in the wild.
Before the weight-loss program, zookeepers would place food in front of the animals and offer them high-calorie snacks, such as fruit. And the animals got little or no exercise.
He aimed to improve the elephants' health by reducing the amounts they are fed and replacing higher calorie food with low-cal choices.
Read more: http://www.kentucky.com/2010/06/15/1307809/zoo-elephants-put-on-diet-that.html#ixzz0qy9NSAcd
Elephants also were trained to exercise and allowed to wander their enclosures at night instead of being placed in individual stalls.
It worked. Five elephants lost between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds each and a sixth male dropped 3,500 pounds - about 23 percent of his body weight - Andrews said.
"Now, we maintain detailed weight graphs and monitor the trends," he said. "We get to what we think our goal weight is and see if we can maintain that weight for a while."
Weight issues have changed the way zoo elephants are cared for, said Bruce Upchurch, curator of elephants at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
"Going back 30 years, it was 'let's feed them as much as - and the best quality food - we possibly can,'" he said. "It was acceptable to throw hay in front of them and let them eat. That's just not acceptable anymore."
Fresno Chaffee Zoo also has changed its food, going to low starch and high fiber food pellets and replacing apples with lower-calorie carrots.
Maintaining an appropriate body weight will help Fresno's elephants as they age. Kara, 33, and Shaunzi, 39, are roughly equivalent to humans in their 50s, Barton said.
Elephants will live into their 50s or older in zoos, and live to similar ages in the wild.
Although Shaunzi and Kara have pared off the pounds, their work is not done, Mountan said. The goal, he said, is for them each to weigh no more than 8,500 pounds.
Zookeepers are already seeing an improvement in the elephants' health. Shaunzi's muscles seemed to be stiffer when she carried more weight, but "they are moving a lot better now," Mountan said. "Their muscles are in better shape."
The elephants also are evaluated on the way parts of their bodies appear as weight is lost. In a rear view of the elephants, Mountan notes where their backbone has become more evident in recent months. He said the backbone must become a bit more pronounced, which means losing a few hundred more pounds.
When the elephants reach their weight goal, the amount of food they get will be adjusted to meet their new, lower-calorie demands.
"The less extra weight older people carry around, the healthier they usually are, and that goes for elephants, too," he said.
Read more: http://www.kentucky.com/2010/06/15/1307809_p2