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Keeper taught elephants in zoo to live as if wild

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Recently retired ABQ BioPark Zoo elephant manager Rhonda Saiers leaves behind an elephant program that zoos across the U.S. and around the world are now emulating. (Courtesy of New Mexico Biopark Society)

The elephant herd at the ABQ BioPark zoo is more than just a collection of lumbering, plant-eating pachyderms.

They are on the cutting edge of how herds live, learn and care for one another in a zoo setting, thanks largely to the efforts of just-retired elephant manager Rhonda Saiers.

Saiers, who in 1996 started working at what was then the Rio Grande Zoo, began initiating programs and protocols designed to get the elephants to mimic the same behaviors they would exhibit in the wild. Many of the measures she instituted at the BioPark Zoo regarding elephant exercise, behavioral enrichment and herd structure have been adopted by zoos across the U.S. and around the world.

“Rhonda is moving on, but she’s still an expert at what she does and I expect she will continue to be called upon nationally and internationally for her expertise,” said Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Cultural Services Department.

“The elephant program is a hallmark program, and Rhonda has been innovating and pushing the edges of how zoos take care of elephants, really for more than 20 years,” Sanchez said.

“Back in the day elephants were walked a lot. That was their exercise,” Saiers said. Since then, “we created a ‘cross-fit’ for elephants, where they can voluntarily participate to train with us and do exercises to develop strength, flexibility and endurance.”

Because the zoo adopted a “protective contact” model, the keepers remain outside a barrier, and the elephants have the choice to come to the keeper to participate in the training, for which they get rewarded.

“When you watch the work that they do at the BioPark Zoo, you can’t help but be inspired,” said Bob Lee, general curator and elephant manager at the Oregon Zoo, which has adopted many of the measures.

Oregon Zoo general curator and elephant manager Bob Lee with Samson, right, who previously lived at the ABQ BioPark Zoo. The Oregon Zoo has adopted an elephant program originally instituted at the BioPark Zoo. (Courtesy of Bob Lee)

“Those animals seek out the team and want to participate,” which is extremely important to keeping a healthy herd, he said.

“Unlike other animals that you can anesthetize easily if they get sick, elephants have to cooperate in their care. It’s not easy to anesthetize these guys, and to have the kind of relationship where they’ll come right over and allow you to take a blood sample when you need it, or accept a shot if medicine is required, or get them to open up their mouths so you can look at their teeth, is just an amazing thing to watch,” Lee said.

Behavioral enrichment is another area that is now understood to be vitally important to the physical and mental health of elephants, but it wasn’t always regarded that way.

When Saiers began working at the zoo, she ended her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift by “throwing a bale of hay on the ground for the elephants before I went home – and that was it.”

“Today, we use puzzle feeders to keep the elephants foraging and to challenge their brains,” she said. “We might put peanuts in a ball and they have to roll it around to get the peanuts to fall out, or we will put hay in a net above their heads so they have to reach and stretch for it. By utilizing a rotation system, we keep the elephants moving and get them to display every behavior you would see in the wild.”

The zoo has also moved away from keeping elephants in separate stalls at night, Saiers said. They now have the choice to be inside the behind-the-scenes elephant barn or outside on 5½ acres of land that contains comfortable ground spaces on which to lie, pools of water to get in as they desire, and automatic feeders strategically placed around their activity-based habitat.

Saiers was also at the forefront of rethinking how to strengthen a multi-generational herd structure among elephants in captivity, in part by allowing members to view elephants giving birth.

Twenty-seven year old Rozie is “the poster child for that,” Saiers said. “I started working with her when she was about 3 and continued working with her at each birth from her first one at about 16, all the way through to Thorn,” who was born two years ago.

So not only did Rozie learn how to become a mom, “the goal ultimately was to create a multigenerational herd where females, when they’re having babies, are teaching the next generation how to have babies,” Saiers said.

“The birth of baby Thorn proved that it could work, that we didn’t have to intervene so much with baby elephants being born.” As Rozie gave birth to Thorn, her daughter, Jazmine, then 4, was present and will presumably retain that knowledge, she said.

The herd at the BioPark Zoo today consists of six elephants, four females, including Rozie’s mother, Alice, and two males, including Thorn, and Albert, who is the brother of Thorn’s father, Samson, now residing at the Oregon Zoo.

Saiers, 47, a native of Albuquerque, attended Sandia High School and later the University of New Mexico, where she earned a degree in biology.

“I expected that I might get a job in animal research, or maybe work for the Fish and Wildlife Service doing research and population density studies and that sort of thing,” she said.

While still at UNM, Saiers volunteered as a zoo docent but never considered a career there until she saw an ad for a job opening.

“I thought it might be kind of fun, so I applied and got very lucky, was offered the position and had a great career.”

Saiers said she looks forward to spending more time with her own family and knows the team she left behind to care for the elephants is carrying on the cutting edge work that they began.

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