Recently I attended another Nandi function at the Reid Park Zoo called “An African Sundowner with Nandi.” A “Sundowner” in Africa is the custom of enjoying cocktails at the end of the day outside beneath a gorgeous sunset. The zoo provided cocktails — and hors d’oeuvres — while God delivered on the gorgeous sunset.
After the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, we got to see close-up demonstrations of how the keepers work with the elephants using Mabu, their 12,000 pound bull elephant (and Nandi’s daddy) for one half of us and “Auntie” Lugile for the other half.
I made a beeline for the Mabu demo as soon as the announcement was made. We stood around one half of a little wood-railed enclosure in which the trainer stood, the other half of the enclosure behind her being the protective barrier the trainers use at Reid Park. Mabu waited on the other side of the barrier. (At most he was ten feet away from me, maybe less. I was in awe.)
The barrier itself is a good fifteen to twenty feet tall and made of heavy, rectangular metal bars that form open-air “windows” in a sort of grid pattern, except the rectangles differ in size. Many of them are actually little doors that can be opened so the trainer can do whatever needs done.
It’s treat based training, so our demonstrator had a big bucket of pellets that she used for the treats. She opened a lower window, held out her hand toward Mabu, he extended his trunk through the opening and, widening the open end of it, met her palm, kind of like an elephant’s version of a high-five. The opening of the end of his trunk, however, was bigger than her hand. I think that was a “get ready” signal and response for she used it between each new task she asked him to do.
After the introductory exchange, she gave him some pellets, then another hand signal and he turned and placed his right front foot on the lower edge of the window, bent so that the heavy bottom pad faced her (and us) so she could brush it off and inspect it. When she signaled that she was done, he took his foot out of the window and turned back to collect some more treats. He did this with all four feet. (Feet and tusks, said the keepers, are the areas they have the most trouble with in keeping elephants in captivity. They check the feet every day)
Another signal prompted him to face her, lift his trunk high and in so doing, open his mouth so she could see into it and make sure all was well. We got to see in it as well. 🙂
He is SO big, so awesome! I wish I had words for the experience of watching him, the impact of his size, the sense of keen intelligence there and of being observed by him in a way that’s different from other animals, and even from the elephants most of the time. You could also sense that he was having fun, and maybe even that he enjoyed being the center of attention.
After that we went to the main yard where the keepers brought out decorated cardboard boxes with “Happy Six Month Birthday, Nandi!” on them. There was also a birthday “cake”: two large flat, rounds of frozen fruit pieces and juice joined by three slender tree branches with bark on them (bark is a tasty treat for elephants). Once all was in place the keepers left the paddock and let the elephants in — or at least Mom, Nandi and her two brothers.
They literally ran in, all excited. Mom made short work of the cake, using her feet to hold down the bottom while pulling at the top with her trunk. When that didn’t work, she just stepped on the bottom round and crushed it. Meanwhile the others were tearing the boxes apart and eating the hay inside. Well, except for Nandi. She tore her box open, ignored the hay, and continued to dismantle the box piece by piece, accompanied by all sorts of other gyrations that were just fun to watch.
I didn’t bring my camera because it was going to be low light, so I don’t have photos, but I do have this video that was made around Christmas. By then she had progressed quite a bit over the last video I posted where all she did was climb over the log and stand there. In this one she’s playing with the ball, dancing about, and doing funny things with her trunk. In short, it’s just too cute to pass up. (Also, at the very beginning of this, where Semba and Nandi are walking along with the trainer who’s outside the pen with a bucket of pellets, if you watch closely you can see the trainer give Semba a command to lift her trunk and she does so)