Little Mac

  • Was discovered as an orphan in an Indian forest, taken in by a logging camp
  • Is currently 47 years old, considered geriatric for her species
  • Has lost all her upper teeth, so much of her food is ground in a wood chipper and she takes extra time to eat
  • Swims in the pool most warm afternoons
  • Loves to eat pumpkins
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Remembering Sujatha

Sujatha and Little Mac have been ambassadors for Asian elephants in Santa Barbara for 46 years. Children who first met them in the 1970s have brought their own children, and some even their grandchildren, to meet these wonderful creatures. They have been loved and cared for by numerous keepers and staff over the years. We are grateful to Sujatha and Little Mac for how they have enriched all our lives.

Rich BlockCEO

Read more about Sujatha.

How is Little Mac?

What's Next for Little Mac?

Many people wonder what is next for Little Mac. Will she continue to do well in the home she has always known, with familiar keepers and routines? Or might she do better in the company of other elephants at another accredited facility that can give her the quality care and attention she needs, given she is an elderly animal?

We are asking Little Mac to show us.

A scientific study is currently underway that uses behavioral observations to assess her response to change. You may notice modifications in the exhibit, and staff making observations and recording data on tablets and laptops.

This data should provide a better understanding of how Little Mac adapts to significant variations in her daily routine, and how she may cope with a potential move and introduction to other elephants.

Little Mac’s welfare is most important in this process, and if the team observes behaviors of concern, they will stop and reevaluate. The study will take several months. For more details, visit Mac’s blog.

A “Senior Citizen” Elephant

According to data from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the median life expectancy in Asian elephants in U.S. zoos is 46.9 years. That means that half the animals live less than that age, and half live longer. At age 47, Sujatha was very close to the median, as is Little Mac.

To learn more about how AZA-accredited organizations manage an aging animal population, check out this article from the Association’s member magazine, Connect.

Frequently asked questions about Little Mac and elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Liz Beem, the Zoo’s elephant manager, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about Little Mac and elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Why can't we just bring in another elephant for Little Mac?

Little Mac and Sujatha were exceptionally bonded and had lived together prior to coming to the Zoo in July 1972. We never had a need, nor did they have a desire, to spend any length of time away from each other. For those reasons, the Zoo only has one, open-plan indoor barn with no separate stalls for individual elephants.

In order to properly and safely introduce elephants, there generally needs to be separate indoor and outdoor living space for each elephant. This is not just for introductions, but may potentially be used in the future, depending on elephants’ temperament towards each other.

Successful elephant relationships are generally established with a gradual, well-planned process: the separated elephants grow comfortable with each other at their own pace, and only share the same space after they consistently show positive behaviors. This way, there is little to no aggression that could cause serious injury to either animal.

Our elephant facility is not currently designed to allow for this process. To redesign the barn and exhibit yards would mean a tremendous amount of construction. We feel this actually would have a negative impact on Little Mac’s welfare. There are other factors why construction is not an option (see below).

Why can't Mac just have a companion animal to keep her company, like a dog or a goat, as seen on the internet?

While we have all seen heartwarming examples of unusual bonds between different species, the introduction of a non-elephant companion for Little Mac is not a responsible option at this point.

She does not have a history of interactions with any other species. Given Little Mac’s size, the safety and health of a smaller animal companion can’t be guaranteed.

For this reason, there are no plans to introduce another species as a companion for her at this time.

Isn’t Little Mac depressed?

Wouldn’t it be great if an animal could tell us what they think and feel, so we could provide exactly what is best for them? The closest we can come to this is to recognize and understand what their behavior tells us.

Zookeepers and caretakers do this through study a species’ natural history, such as how they forage, hunt, eat; how they cope with environmental factors in the wild; and how they interact socially. We also learn an individual’s traits and behaviors.

Little Mac currently has a team of four dedicated elephant keepers, some of whom have worked with her for over a decade. These keepers are very much in tune with what is normal for Little Mac, from how much and where she sleeps every night to how she generally chooses to interact with them for her husbandry and medical needs.

Since Sujatha’s passing, Little Mac has been stable and as independent as ever before. In addition, some of her behavioral changes indicate an improvement in her overall well-being.

She has regained some weight she lost as Sujatha’s health was in decline. She has returned to sleeping patterns like those recorded for her historically, which had changed as Sujatha began to sleep sporadically.

Little Mac also now explores and works on more challenging enrichment offerings which Sujatha, as the more dominant elephant, typically monopolized. Given the time and opportunity, Little Mac stays very active, exploring puzzle feeders, and foraging for natural food items throughout the day and night.

The consistency in her overall behaviors, her positive improvement in some typical patterns, and the development of new exploratory behaviors all show us that Little Mac is not experiencing depression or stress after the loss of Sujatha.

We will continue to closely monitor her and have implemented a systematic, objective study of her behavior to be able to track changes and indications of her welfare.

Read more about the observational study now underway to assess Little Mac here.

Why won’t there be elephants at the SB Zoo after Little Mac is gone?

Several years ago the Association of Zoo and Aquariums (AZA), in collaboration with advisory groups and elephant facilities across North America, developed improved guidelines for the care and conservation of African and Asian elephants housed in accredited zoological institutions and partner programs.

A significant portion of the new policies spoke to the need to house elephants in more natural
“herd structures” that reflect not only the individual needs of each and every animal, but also the species’ natural history.

Asian elephants are known to have herds of three to 15 females of varying ages. Future goals for AZA elephant facilities are to maintain or build family groups that reflect this natural history.

Our space in Santa Barbara is constrained by both natural and man-made barriers, as well as the presence of archaeological artifacts. We are unable to expand to meet the current AZA requirements for future long-term care and welfare of a multigenerational herd of Asian elephants.

In 2008 the Zoo voluntarily elected to phase out housing Asian elephants once Little Mac and Sujatha were no longer with us. For welfare reasons, moving either elephant prior to Sujatha’s passing was not an option. The AZA allowed our elephants to remain at the Zoo, as we met (and often exceeded) the welfare guidelines and standards for their care, which were reviewed annually.

While the best course of action is determined regarding her future, we are committed to meet every standard of care to ensure Little Mac’s ultimate welfare and allow her to thrive.

The consistency in her overall behaviors, her positive improvement in some typical patterns, and the development of new exploratory behaviors all show us that Little Mac is not experiencing any form of depression or stress after the loss of Sujatha.

Liz BeemElephant Manager

Conservation Status

Asian elephants are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List which names the major challenges for conservation as habitat loss, poaching, and human-elephant conflicts. The reduction and fragmentation of elephant habitat and an expanding human population requiring increased farming often lead to these conflicts.

Choose Sustainable Palm Oil

It really does matter what you eat! Many foods we eat or cleaning and personal care items we use every day contain palm oil collected from the forests of Asia. By choosing foods made with sustainable palm oil, you can help save animals, including elephants. Download a free palm oil shopping app for iOS or Android.