Here at the Oklahoma City Zoo, the Elephant and Rhino team takes care of eight Asian elephants and three Indian rhinoceros. My name is Sarah, and I’m the newest Animal Caretaker on our ten-person team. This is my first time working with elephants, and there’s a lot to learn to ensure that the Zoo’s charismatic giants have world-class care and optimal wellbeing. Here, I’ll share with you how we clean, bathe, and train our elephants through daily care as well as some of the recent milestones the Elephant and Rhino team has experienced in my first six months.


The first thing a new caretaker learns is how to clean—our animals and areas! Elephants can defecate up to 200 pounds a day, so with eight elephants that’s a lot of poop to scoop! Our days generally begin before the Zoo even opens by cleaning outside in the three large elephant habitats. Not only do we remove all the feces, we also rake up any leftover hay that the elephants didn’t eat from the previous day. We then continue on with even more cleaning, as every day we also hose and scrub the entire inside of the elephant barn.

The best part of waking up is scooping poop into the truck!



The next thing a new caretaker learns is how to bathe an elephant. Dust bathing is a natural behavior, and we make sure to provide our elephants with sand and dirt piles in every habitat that they can use to dust with—so they can get pretty dirty! We hose down our elephants every morning during their daily bath routine. Not only does this get them nice and clean, it also serves as an important opportunity to look over their bodies to make sure they haven’t sustained any bumps, bruises, or other injuries.

Four-year-old Kairavi gets lots of good reinforcement during her daily baths.



 The next step is learning how to train the elephants. All of our elephants participate in at least two, but sometimes many more, daily training sessions. We train our elephants, as we train all the animals at the Zoo, with operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. This means that we ask the animals for a behavior and, when they offer the correct behavior, they receive a reinforcement or reward. Generally, we train using slices of apples, carrots, and sweet potatoes, although more challenging behaviors such as kneeling or stretching might earn a higher value reinforcement such as half of an orange or banana.


Important training tools include a pouch to hold produce, a clicker to tell the elephant they’ve offered the correct behavior, and a target pole that is used as point of reference to give the elephant more information.



As I experience milestones in my own career, the entire team has also experienced some exciting events in the last six months. 

We’ve experienced the growth of our youngest herd member, Rama, born in January 2022. Elephants can nurse for up to two years but start consuming solid food around six months of age which is when they are able to begin formal training. This means that I’ve gotten to see Rama go from a silly baby to…a slightly less silly baby. In just a few months of training, Rama has learned many diverse behaviors that will allow her to actively participate in her own healthcare should the need arise. 

We’ve also experienced the growth of our herd by one curious male elephant. Last November, nine-year-old male elephant, Bowie relocated to the Zoo from the Fort Worth Zoo as part of a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan™ for Asian elephants. We’ve recently started introducing Bowie to our female elephants and have seen a lot of positive interactions including playful sparring, tactile investigation, and cooperative feeding. We therefore have high hopes that our herd will continue to grow!

It’s definitely been an eventful six months, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for me at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Are you interested in learning more about elephants and rhinos and working at the Zoo? Consider checking out our volunteer program. You can also always visit the elephants and rhinos in their habitats in Sanctuary Asia and look for updates on our herd through our social media platforms.



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