Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 1:03 pm

Fitness tracking is all the rage right now. If you want to, you can monitor your heart rate, count your footsteps and calories burned, and even monitor your sleep patterns, all by using devices that can fit around your wrist or in your pocket. But that's if you're human. Fresno Chaffee Zoo, in Fresno, Calif., is taking fitness tracking to a mammoth new level — part of a national project to guard the health and happiness of zoo elephants.

Take Shaunzi, for example, an Asian elephant in Fresno who was a little overweight a few years ago. So she started a new exercise routine and ditched the jelly beans for apples and carrots. Shaunzi's doing fine now; right around 6,000 pounds.

She's enrolled in a data-rich fitness tracking project, called the Elephant Welfare Initiative, that's striving to boost the well-being of captive elephants throughout the U.S. Caretakers in the national project, which includes more than 40 zoos, keep detailed logs of the animals' behavior and activity, and then receive a report card with suggestions about how to enhance the elephants' environment and routine.

"We'll get more concise information on body scoring," says Vernon Presley, the Fresno zoo's lead elephant curator. "Of how fit our elephants are. How much we time we spend with our elephants."

In the past, zoo elephants have been known to suffer more from obesity, foot problems and reproductive complications than their wild counterparts.

"We really feel this is what they call a lifestyle change in the elephant community," Presley says. "We have to now commit even a greater amount of resources into monitoring our elephants' behavior and how well we're taking care of them."

The initiative arose out of a set of scientific studies that were published last summer in the journal PLOS One. Cheryl Meehan, a veterinary epidemiologist who directs the animal welfare consulting group, The AWARE Institute, says she and her collaborators in the research examined more than 250 elephants in extraordinary detail.

Evidence-based animal care may sound obvious, but wide-reaching data on captive animal populations is actually pretty rare. Studies in the past tended to examine only a small number of elephants, or only a limited set of welfare indicators.

In contrast, Meehan and her colleagues" collected blood and fecal samples, veterinary reports, hours and hours of video," she says. "We looked at GPS data to measure daily walking distances, and also photographs to assess elephant body condition."

Among their results, the team found that feet and joints were healthier in enclosures with soft soil or sand. That makes sense. More surprisingly, bigger enclosures didn't seem to make for healthier elephants. But isolation was a problem. One of the most important findings: The more social engagement, the healthier the animals. Meehan says socializing appears to fend off repetitive behaviors — such as pacing or swaying back and forth, which can be signs of anxiety.

"Elephants that spend more time in larger social groups — particularly those that included young elephants — and elephants that spend less time housed by themselves were less likely to engage in these behaviors," Meehan says.

In hopes of increasing the health and happiness of captive elephants, all this data has been brought together to shape the centerpiece of the Elephant Welfare Initiative: a software system that offers feedback on elephant care in real time.

Greg Vicino, the San Diego Zoo's associate curator of elephants, says the software dashboards are designed to make it easy for keepers to monitor the animals' health and activity.

"They're set up to look kind of like either little speedometers," Vicino says. "Or you can make it look basically like a bar chart that tells you where you are now, [and] where you stand next to the national average. You can kind of set targets for yourself." Not enough social activity today, for example? Make sure you boost those opportunities tomorrow.

Elephant keepers are already learning and adjusting. For instance, the research showed one way to make female elephants healthier is to challenge them with a puzzle – a task to complete — to get their food. Completing those sorts of challenges is correlated with better reproductive health.

So, at the Fresno zoo, when it's time for breakfast, Shaunzi confronts a tangled network of chains and hanging objects. She reaches her trunk into a barrel above her head, and shakes it until a shower of hay rains down.

Despite the evidence that these shifts in routine seem to be helping, not everyone is excited about the elephant initiative and its parent research. Kate Dylewsky, program associate for the animal advocacy group Born Free USA, says the PLOS One studies confirm that elephants don't belong in zoos at all.

"They showed that elephants in zoos only walk 5.3 kilometers a day, whereas, in the wild, African elephants can walk over 50 miles a day," Dylewsky says. "There were 25 percent with joint problems, 67 percent with foot problems, and then a whole host of reproductive issues."

Still, at Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Presley says zoo keepers are incorporating lessons learned from the research into their care, to the benefit of their elephants. They've helped Shaunzi and fellow Asian elephant Kara each lose around 2,000 pounds. They're varying the animals' feeding routines.

And they know the elephants would benefit from more social opportunities. Presley says they're looking for a new home for Shaunzi and Kara, so the two can regularly mingle with a bigger herd.

As for Fresno's African elephants — Musi, Amy and Miss Betts — the zoo hopes they'll create their own little multigenerational herd soon.

Copyright 2017 Valley Public Radio. To see more, visit Valley Public Radio.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. Are you into these tracking watches, you know, these things you can wear to monitor your heart rate, your footsteps, even your sleep patterns? But are you also keeping track of the flooring you walk on or how many friends you hang out with? Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in Fresno reports on a community of health-watchers who are tracking all kinds of things.

KERRY KLEIN, BYLINE: Shaunzi used to be a little overweight, but she started exercising and ditched the jelly beans for apples and carrots. She's doing fine now, right around 6,000 pounds. She's an Asian elephant at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

VERNON PRESLEY: We have two savannas which we have our elephants in.

KLEIN: Lead elephant curator Vernon Presley says Shaunzi and the zoo's four other elephants are enrolled in a data-rich fitness tracking program called the Elephant Welfare Initiative. Caretakers keep detailed logs using special software.

PRESLEY: We'll get more concise information on body scoring, of how fit our elephants are, how much time we spend with our elephants.

KLEIN: Presley says the program aims to reduce bone and joint problems, improve reproductive health and ensure better overall welfare for captive elephants.

PRESLEY: We really feel this is what they call a lifestyle change in the elephant community.

KLEIN: More than 40 zoos across North America are taking part.

PRESLEY: We have to now commit even a greater amount of resources into monitoring our elephants' behavior and how well we're taking care of them.

KLEIN: The initiative arose out of a set of scientific studies published recently in the journal PLOS One. Author Cheryl Meehan of the animal welfare consulting group the AWARE Institute says she and her colleagues examined more than 250 elephants in extraordinary detail.

CHERYL MEEHAN: We collected blood and fecal samples, veterinary reports, hours and hours of video. We collected GPS data to measure daily walking distances - and also photographs to assess elephant body condition.

KLEIN: Among their results, the team found that feet and joints were healthier in enclosures with soft soil or sand - that makes sense. More surprisingly, bigger enclosures didn't seem to make for healthier elephants. And one of the most important findings - the more social engagement, the healthier the animals. Meehan says socializing appears to fend off repetitive behaviors like swaying back and forth, which can be a sign of anxiety.

MEEHAN: Elephants that spend more time in larger social groups, particularly those that included young elephants, and elephants that spend less time housed by themselves, these elephants were less likely to engage in these behaviors.

KLEIN: To make these animals healthier and happier, all this data has been brought together into the centerpiece of the Elephant Welfare Initiative, a software system that offers real-time feedback on elephant care. San Diego Zoo elephant curator Greg Vicino says the dashboards are designed to make it easy for keepers to monitor elephant health.

GREG VICINO: They're set up to look kind of like either little speedometers. Or you can make it look, basically, like a bar chart that tells you where you are now, where you stand next to the national average. And you can kind of set targets for yourself.

KLEIN: Elephant-keepers are already learning and adjusting. For instance, the research showed one way to make female elephants healthier is to make them work for food. That challenge is correlated with better reproductive health. So at the Fresno zoo, when it's time for breakfast, Shaunzi confronts a tangled network of chains and hanging objects. She reaches her trunk into a barrel above her head and shakes it until a shower of hay rains down. It's one of many new strategies helping ensure that captive elephants are healthy elephants.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Klein in Fresno.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "THE ILLUSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.