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Boat bumpers for the elephants

Posted by: Pattie Beaven, Elephant Keeper

Chai playfully balances a boat bumper on her head. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Our elephants have a number of toys, or, in zoo-speak, Environmental Enrichment Devices (EED) that are designed to bring out their instinctual behaviors, along with all the naturally enriching elements in their exhibit like trees, logs, leaf piles, water and different ground coverings. The elephants have quite an array of EEDs, and one of their favorites is a boomer ball, which we often fill with treats. But constantly purchasing more boomer balls (since the elephants can be a bit destructive with them) can be a little costly. So, what’s a zookeeper to do? We think outside the box, er, ball.

With a background working with marine mammals, I thought back to my days of playing with dolphins. We would throw boat bumpers and buoys in with the 800-pound critters, and play endless games with them. So, how would an 8,000-pound animal react to one?

Chai carries the bumper around with her trunk. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

To get my answer I ventured to West Marine to see if we could acquire a couple of boat bumpers to test out on these playful pachyderms. Lo and behold, I discovered that not only did the manager have a couple to spare, but that in the summertime, they often receive dozens each week. Finding a new and revitalized way to keep them out of the landfill was refreshing to him, and getting free toys for the animals at the zoo was exhilarating for me!

Back at the barn, we brainstormed all the different ways we could use these new EEDs. Hang them, put them in barrels, give them to the elephants—the possibilities were endless. Some we drilled holes in so we could fill with treats. Looping rope through them, we can hang them almost anywhere, and also change the locations where we hang them. This was incredibly exciting for us and we hoped the elephants—Asian elephants Bamboo and Chai, and African elephant Watoto—would love them too!

Chai gives a pull on a tied up boat bumper. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The first elephant we wanted to test the boat bumpers on was Bamboo. She’s the oldest, and probably the most mischievous. She’s very good at figuring things out, and she’s our best product tester, because if any of our girls is going to figure out how to destroy something, dismantle something, or break something, it’s going to be Bamboo. We hung a boat bumper up in the barn, and put another in an EED container to protect it from getting squished too soon. It didn’t take Bamboo long to figure out where the hole was located so she could get the treats out. It took a little encouragement from us for Bamboo to notice the hanging bumper, but once she realized it, too, held treats, it was game on, and she batted it non-stop until she was certain every morsel was out.

Chai reaches for what she’s probably hoping is a bumper full of treats. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Next in line was Chai. Chai was so intrigued by the texture of the boat bumpers, she pulled the boat bumper out of the device so she could rub her mouth and trunk all over it. With this knowledge, we started hanging the bumpers lower, and Chai would drain the bumpers of their treats but then continue to rub them through her trunk and along her jaw. A little hesitant on my end, I finally caved and gave Chai the whole boat bumper, without a hole drilled, and no treats inside. I was certain Chai wouldn’t want anything to do with it, but was I wrong. She stepped on it, and tried to pop it in her mouth, and then started tossing it in the air. And then she started playing with me, handing me the bumper with her trunk and darting after it when I threw it back. I don’t know exactly what is going through her head, but I’ve started to refer to the bumpers as her “woobie”. They are definitely a favorite of hers and watching her play with them is enjoyable for everyone!

Chai gives the boat bumper a toss while Watoto looks on. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Stomp. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

However much Chai loves her boat bumpers, though, it seems Watoto is convinced they are out to get her, and she must assert her dominance over the new toy. When we first hung the boat bumpers for Watoto to have access, she tusked them over and over. Only when treats dropped out onto the floor did she stop suddenly as if to say “Oh, treats!” When she sees a boat bumper hanging in the corner when she enters the barn, her ears go out, her head goes up, and her pace quickens. But, these boat bumpers aren’t her worst enemy; she may assert her dominance over them, but in my two years working with these girls, I have never seen Watoto as playful with an object as she is with the boat bumpers.

Watoto shows the boat bumper who is boss. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

So, the boat bumpers have given a new life to our enrichment program here at the Elephant Barn. They keep the elephants mentally stimulated, but they have done more than we ever imagined. The elephants pull and toss them like they would do to logs and branches in their natural environment. The bumpers are mobile so we can use them anywhere, and they are adaptable, so we can use them often. Most commonly, we use them at night to encourage these natural behaviors even when we are not around. And it encourages playful behavior in older animals. These successes have drawn other animal areas around the zoo to consider using them as toys and puzzle devices for other species.

Watoto carries the bumper around the exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Next time you visit the zoo, keep your eye out for enrichment items hidden and scattered for the animals throughout all our exhibits, and see what kinds of fascinating behaviors they bring out in the animals.


Anonymous said…
Great story!
Anonymous said…
That is very cool..I know watching the elephants that they like to play with things, and enjoyed watching one throwing things into the trees to knock leaves down so she could eat them..Like a little kid..tryin to get the apple out of the tree..So way cool for them to have something new to stimulate their minds..GOOD JOB!
mel said…
Aw I want am elephant now..can't wait to go to the zoo and see these beautiful ladies!
Anonymous said…
Definition of fender noun from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

fender NOUN
ˈfendə(r) ˈfendər

1 (North American English) (British English wing)
a part of a car that is above a wheel
2 (North American English) (British English mudguard)
a curved cover over a wheel of a bicycle
a frame around a fireplace to prevent burning coal or wood from falling out
a soft solid object such as an old tyre or a piece of rope that is hung over the side of a boat so the boat is not damaged if it touches another boat, a wall, etc.
Beejay said…
Love this story! Keep them coming!
It is amazing that elephants can be happy with the little things.
Thank you so much for the article! I think enrichment programs are the best!
Anonymous said…
Wonderful story and so glad you are enriching their lives but what about a larger enclosure? Seems so small for such large creatures.