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Every day is spa day in the Elephant Barn

Posted by: Laura Lockard, Communications/Public Affairs

Asian elephant Bamboo shows us how bath time is done. Video by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

From Borneo to Seattle, elephants embrace their bath time. We all know the feeling when you first step into the shower after working in the yard all day. Elephants at Woodland Park Zoo not only get an extended, luxurious shower, they also enjoy a quatro-pedi and a good exfoliation with a special elephant brush.

Watoto gets a massage with a special brush. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

I recently had the pleasure of joining the elephant keepers as they brought Watoto into the shower barn. There she greeted them with a long, trunky sniff and then was ready for her bath with the  garden hose. Her giantess turned attentively as she followed her keeper’s soft commands, “Watoto right, Watoto turn, Watoto back.” All the washing while, she was inquisitively seeking that next snack. Carrots seem to be her treat of choice.

Asian elephant Bamboo demonstrates how cooperative the zoo’s elephants are with their foot care.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Even more outstanding was her sheer willingness to lift each foot, easily balancing on the other three while another keeper gave her a good pedi scrubbing with nail cleaning and check. Once her feet were cleaned, Watoto was then scrubbed with a disproportionately small bristle brush. Just like when you have that impossible itch between your shoulder blades that only a dear one can scratch for you, it was clear Watoto was having a similar “ahhhh” moment as when you finally get the itchy spot resolved. For her it seemed those little folds just near her ears were the “Can you get that for me?” itchy place.

Asian elephant Chai takes a sip...OK, more like a big gulp during bath time. Video by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Then came the tongue rub and mouth check. Watoto’s bright pink tongue changed shapes as her keeper inspected her teeth. She then took that hose like a giant straw and had a very long sip, which was probably just a drop in that bucket of an elephant tummy. Watoto gives drinking from the fire hose a whole new meaning.

Helpful Watoto returns a food dish to her keeper. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

All of this showering and pedicuring serves a much larger purpose than just washing the dirt off. The elephant spa provides the keepers with an opportunity to do their daily overview of her skin, feet, tongue, teeth, bum, belly, back, and emotional state. She certainly seems to enjoy the lavish, caring experience; certainly there is an enthusaiasm to partake in the activity well beyond the carrot-based incentives.

Watoto up close. Photo by Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.

Once Watoto’s spa appointment was complete she meandered back to the exhibit. As her keeper put it, “You know the funny thing about it? She goes right out there and first thing covers herself with dirt.”

Watoto outside. Photo by Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.

You can see the elephants get their baths in the morning at the zoo’s Elephant Barn in the Elephant Forest exhibit. There’s no exact schedule since the elephants call the shots, but baths usually start around 9:30 in the morning and can go for an hour or two in the barn.


Anonymous said…
Absolutely loved it - fascinating. I'm going to sign up to volunteer for their next session in November. I know there's no animal handling for volunteers - a big disappointment for me. But being there and helping will make my day!
Anonymous said…
The elephants' spirits are broken. They have no free will - that was taken from them over the 30 - 40 years when harsh elephant management included all night chaining, being beaten with the bullhook and prolonged lock up. While most of that has ended, the elephants still are locked up in a tiny yard and a barren, barn stall - for life. The zoo can spin what they'd like but these poor elephants are but a shadow of what they should be with their big brains and strong bodies. See their stereotypical behaviours for yourself. These behaviours are the mind's way of coping with trauma - just like human prisoners.