W e completed the “baseline” portion of the behavioral study on Little Mac in March of this year, and started the second phase in mid-May.
During that phase, we introduced changes in her routine, her surroundings, and her training. This was to challenge her and see how she reacted. It also allowed us to get to know how she learns and copes with changes to her environment and daily schedule. As we did for the baseline, keepers conducted ten 10-minute observations of her behavior daily – including overnight hours.
During that phase, Little Mac was not as visible, as she was given access to the barn and “lower” yard so she could choose where she wanted to be. This allowed for enrichment opportunities in different locations and more exercise as she explored these additional areas during the day. We also adjusted our normal habitat cleaning schedule as often as possible to switch up the routine.
Thirty-three new types of behavioral enrichment for Little Mac were developed by the Elephant Team, along with help from other members of the Animal Care and Health Team. These enrichment items and opportunities are based on the study of Asian elephant natural history or experiences in the wild.
They include puzzle feeders in her pool, new large logs from other animal habitats (which are more smelled than seen), streaming water to create random “weather” events, animals that come from other habitats to leave fresh scent marks in Mac’s yard or do visual introductions with Mac, as well as a host of other enrichment items or use of traditional enrichment “toys.”
In many cases, the public couldn’t see these changes – but Little Mac did. There were animal droppings and other “biofacts” like sheep wool and snake sheds, special food items that are not traditionally part of her diet, adjustments to feeding, and other enrichment items given to her after the Zoo closed.
We are also working with Mac to be comfortable performing a variety of new and old behaviors in every area of the habitat. This not only challenges her, but also helps her learn new behaviors more readily. We can take even better care of her, and prepare her if the ultimate decision is to move her to a different elephant facility.
You might see “tethering training,” in which she leans in and allows ropes to be secured to her legs. This is not painful, and she has the choice to willingly participate in return for extra food rewards. Tethering is extremely helpful for medical procedures and also with safe transport. In fact, this was a vital trained behavior that allowed us to perform two successful dental procedures with Mac in 2012.
Though Little Mac is already trained to receive injections for vaccines and for blood collection, we are working with her to receive IV injections and new oral medications. This will help her receive beneficial therapies in the future should she ever need medical attention.
If Little Mac showed any signs of not coping well to a particular challenge, it was discontinued and noted as part of the study data.
This second phase of Little Mac’s study lasted through the August 5. We are now analyzing the data, and are excited to see how Mac adjusts to new challenges in her life while we learn from her.