Elephants and Friends at the Buffalo Zoo


(This 699th column was first published in the August 22, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


Elephants are smart, that goes without saying, and I am now convinced that they also enjoy a finely-tuned sense of humor.


That observation is based on a half-day spent with the Buffalo Zoo's three elephants, Buki, Jothi and Surapa, and the wonderful zoo staff members who work with them.


Daryl Hoffman heads this crew and we're most fortunate to have him here. His credentials suggest why: he's president of the national Elephant Managers Association and each year teaches an intensive Principles of Elephant Management course in Wheeling, West Virginia for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. He's also just back from a trip to observe elephants in Sri Lanka with Mike Noonan's Canisius College team.


Daryl's associates are also impressive. His fellow keepers are Kelly Schroer and Tammy Sugrue. They were assisted on the day I visited by volunteer Christine Wheatley and Niagara County Community College intern Jessica Roth. Two Canisius students who also went to Sri Lanka, Gretchen Wagner and Lindsey Schamel, play elephant-related education roles.


Don't be misled by the number of people tending these animals. I followed the keepers closely for five hours and they worked hard without a break. I retired exhausted from just watching them while they still had a half-day to go. And they don't just care for the three elephants. Also under their purview are two Indian rhinos, Tashi and Henry, a group of axis deer, a flock of peafowl and - not to be forgotten - their performing dog, Peanut.


Elephants are indeed impressive. These three females are Asian elephants, with the largest, 46-year old Buki, weighing in at 4 1/2 tons. (African elephants weigh up to 7 tons.) No wonder they move slowly.


Elephants have to handle this mass with care. When they lie down, they follow a set routine. They fold a hind leg under their body, lower their hip down in that direction and then flop the rest of their body onto its side. Getting up is equally complicated. They roll up onto their knees before rising, one leg at a time.


But these giants also exhibit a delicate side. I watched them pick up tiny jellybeans off the ground and Daryl says they can grasp a dime just as easily. Also while Kelly and Tammy scrubbed them with high-powered sprayers, the elephants carefully avoided stepping on hoses.


There is a playful side to them as well. With their sensitive trunks they worked on a chain in their night quarters until they dismantled it, even swallowing some of the parts. This doesn't pose a danger to these healthy animals as their inefficient digestive systems can pass such objects without injury. They also shorted out an electrical connection by squirting water on it.


The reason I am convinced that these smart animals have a sense of humor is they way they treated me. They clearly identified me as a newcomer and regularly intimidated me - not, I admit, an especially difficult task. They would approach me, not in a threatening way but simply coming close enough to force me to back up a step or two. Each time one of the keepers would simply say, "Back" softly and they would retreat only to do the same thing a few minutes later. I swear I could see their eyes twinkle each time they did this.


Much has been said recently about elephants' hearing of low-pitched organ-like sounds, some below our hearing range. These three communicate with each other this way over a quarter mile or more when separated.


On the day of my visit I watched perhaps a hundred youngsters interacting with Buki while she was being bathed. Once she was hosed down, she lay down to be scrubbed with soap and the children were invited to help. It was wonderful to see the youngsters going over Buki's tough hide with their tiny scrub brushes. Never mind that the kids were so gentle they hardly tickled the big beast, they were helping clean a gentle giant that once hauled huge logs in Indian forests. Based on my observation of these children's delight, I recommend that you immediately take any pre-school youngster you know to the zoo for a morning show. In the afternoon the elephants display their painting skill.


Although they have similar-appearing armor-like hides, elephants and rhinos are not closely related. Elephants are aligned with cows, hyrax and - even closer - manatees while rhinos are related to horses and tapirs.


I was brought up on movies showing angry charging rhinos, but Daryl tells me their first instinct is to flee. In fact, these ferocious-appearing animals appear to like their keepers and get on well with Peanuts. On the other hand, Peanuts is quite shy of the elephants.


Tashi is pregnant and due this fall. That should be some birth.-- Gerry Rising

For more information about the Buffalo Zoo, visit Zoological Society of Buffalo, Inc.