TONS of Love: OKC Zoo Caretakers Share Favorite Elephant Memories

OKC Zoo Elephant Caretaker Team

The OKC Zoo is celebrating World Elephant Day on Sunday, August 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Presented by Bob Moore Subaru, Zoo guests are invited come together for elephants and enjoy a day of fun and learning with games, crafts, bio-facts and other activities on-site at the Zoo’s Sanctuary Asia elephant habitat and entry plaza. For this special day, the elephant caretakers from Sanctuary Asia share their favorite memories about one of the Zoo's seven Asian elephants

Zoo guests can share their love for Asian elephants on social media with #TONSoflove.

Asian Elephant Achara

By Jess Durante

If you have had the chance to come out and visit the Oklahoma City Zoo’s elephant herd, then surely you already know how special Achara is. As part of Achara’s care team, I am fortunate to have an inside scoop on all the little details that sets Achara apart from other elephants. At four years old and well over 3,000 pounds, Achara is quite a tank of a tot. She spends her days splashing in the pool, enjoying frozen treats, and roaming about with the herd. One of my favorite characteristics of Achara’s is her attentiveness and close bond with her younger sister, Kairavi. Kairavi is less than a year old and is closely watched over by Achara. If Kairaivi calls, Achara always comes running. The two can even sometimes be found cuddled up, napping together. This is truly a bond that will last a lifetime.

Achara is also special to me for a rather unique reason. Achara is the very first Asian elephant I have ever trained. As I’ve adjusted to working with Asian elephants and the ways of a new barn, Achara has put extra effort into our training sessions to help me adjust. While some elephants would take the opportunity to mess around with a new trainer, Achara does her best to do what I ask even if I mix up some verbal cues or my body language. She really is a one of a kind elephant!


By Katie Van Singel

I have been a pachyderm caretaker at the OKC Zoo for 2 1/2 years. All the elephants are incredibly unique and special in their own way, but some connect to certain caretakers more than others. You’re not supposed to have favorites, but mine is Chandra. Chandra is the matriarch of our family herd, despite the fact that she is the youngest adult female at 23 years old. She does an excellent job in this role, which requires her to guide her sister Asha and her nieces Achara and Kairavi, mediate any disputes, discipline if needed, and comfort and protect the calves.

Guests often ask us if the animals have personalities, and when it comes to Chandra, the answer is a resounding yes. Chandra is a very confident elephant, and can be very sassy as well. She always has a choice to train with us and she will take full advantage of that choice. We train the elephants with positive reinforcement, which means when they complete a behavior we’ve asked them for, they get a food reward. If she decides that she doesn’t like the treat you gave her for completing a behavior, she will pick it up and toss it away or into a drinker. Sometimes she decides she would rather just hold the treat in her trunk instead of eating it, and will continue participating in training sessions with the treat still tucked in her trunk. Chandra is also incredibly intelligent. She often learns new behaviors quickly and has participated in many research studies in the elephant barn. Her sassy nature may come into play during those studies when she decides that she doesn’t want to participate anymore, however. She is a great problem solver and has been observed teaching the calves important skills for their growth and development.

Chandra may be difficult to tell apart from the other elephants in the herd, so here’s some ways you can spot her easily: Chandra has fewer freckles on her face than her sister Asha, she has more hair directly on her forehead, her ears fold forward at the top, and she has the brightest eyes. She is also our largest female elephant, because when you’re the boss, you can eat as much as you want and nobody can stop you. I hope you will come see Chandra and all our elephants during Asian Elephant Awareness Month and on World Elephant Day!

Elephant Kairavi

By Daniel Custar

Kairavi is the third elephant born at the Oklahoma City Zoo. From the day she was born, it seemed that Kai was taking on the world head on and nothing seemed to slow her down. Of all three calves, Kai has been the most independent and she has been an incredibly fast learner. She is the daughter of Rex and Asha and little sister to Achara. The name Kairavi means Moonlight which is a very fitting name since she was born at 11:28pm. She likes to explore the world with her ears out and is the most playful of all of our elephants. You can often find her side by side with Achara swimming, mud wallowing, climbing, and exploring in the habitats. At nine months old, Kai already knows several behaviors that we need in order to take care of her. These, of course, come in exchange for her favorite treats (watermelon, bananas, oranges, etc.). Kai is the smallest elephant in the herd, but she’s far from small, already weighing in at nearly 1,200 pounds. Come see Kai and the rest of the elephant herd on World Elephant Day, Sunday, August 11th.

Asian Elephant Kandula

By Rachel Emory

If there’s one elephant that keeps us on our toes, it’s Kandula. Kandula is unlike any elephant I’ve ever worked with before. His strong personality shines through in all aspects of his life. He is a typical teenage bull elephant… meaning we have had to “Kandula proof” several structures, feeders, and toys since adding him to our herd. Kandula is incredibly intelligent, and showcases this by using tools to take things apart and find out what’s inside, and moving items around the habitat to reach branches and feeders that he wouldn’t normally be able to reach. Although his curiosity can sometimes lead to being slightly destructive, one of his greatest qualities is his gentle demeanor with the female herd. Kandula spends time with the females, including 9-month-old Kairavi, every day and adds an element of playfulness to the group. In the summer, you can often find Kandula swimming in the pool and allowing the calves to climb all over him. If you’re having trouble identifying Kandula from the rest of the herd, two characteristics that are a quick giveaway are his noticeably long legs and his signature “foghorn” noise that he blows directly into his own ear. Come celebrate World Elephant Day with Kandula and the rest of the herd on Sunday, August 11th!

Asian Elephant Rex

By Amy Mathews

Rex, the King of OKC, has had the pleasure of calling our Zoo home for the past eight years. During this time Rex has fathered two rambunctious female calves, Achara and Kairavi, who match him in both wit and tenacity. As one of the eldest members of the herd, Rex has become a fan favorite among locals and Zoo staff alike. 

What I enjoy most about Rex is his too-cool-for-school attitude, which challenges the keeper staff to find novel foods, toys, and experiences for him to enjoy daily. There is nothing that this four-ton bull loves more than a large pile of wood shavings to shower himself with or an elephant ice treat (popsicle) on a hot summers day. On occasion, Rex will even take a dip into the pool where he will completely submerge himself, leaving just the top of his head and the tip of his trunk above the water. "Pooltime" for Rex is all about relaxation; he leaves the splashing and playing up to the youngsters. 

Rex is a phenomenal ambassador for his species. His small ears are overshadowed by the impressive ivory that he carries with ease while grazing throughout the habitat. My favorite part of each day is when I get an opportunity to watch guests when they see Rex for the first time. Children point and parents stand in awe of the incredible animal that moves before them. Those moments reaffirm why I became a zookeeper in the first place. Rex is a symbol of hope for his species, an ambassador for conservation, and an inspiration to us all. I am truly honored to be one of his caretakers and invite everyone to visit Rex and prepare to leave amazed.

Asian Elephant Asha

By Kris Flickinger

Asha is a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. In this case it belongs to a 24-year-old Asian elephant weighing in at about8,000 pounds. Asha is very special to me for a number of reasons. She is the first elephant I started working with when I became a keeper. Training her during morning bath time is often the highlight of my day. She is always eager to participate in these sessions even with that cute little baby crawling all over her. Watching her play mother to her offspring and seeing the wide range of emotion that she displays is a wonderful thing to witness. All of these things plus her love of hot sauce has earned her a special place in my heart.

Asian Elephant Bamboo

By Michelle Gruneisen

I have TONS of love for Bamboo. She’s an old lady and moves slower than everybody else, but don’t let that fool you - she routinely figures out puzzle feeders faster than any other member of the herd!

With 52 years of experience, she’s seen it all. New cognitive research study? Give her 5 minutes and she’ll solve it. Learning a new behavior? Bring it on.

Bamboo is usually slow to wake up in the morning... and likes to nap in the afternoon. She loves to dust bathe (she can manage to get about 5 pounds of sand on her back) and grazing on fresh grass. Her favorite food, by far, is raw onion.

Something unique about her is that she always peels her oranges. All of our other elephants will eat oranges whole, but Bamboo will hold the orange in palm part of the end of her trunk and use the finger-like projection to wriggle the fruit loose from the rind. She drops the peel and pops the fruit into her mouth. (The other elephants will happily take her leftovers!) These are just a few of the reasons why Bamboo is my favorite member of the herd. Come out to our World Elephant Day celebration to meet her and the other members of the here, and pick your own favorite elephant!

Photo courtesy Andrea Johnson

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