Today is Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day! The Sanctuary's Care Staff is made up of 16 individuals from all over the country who share their knowledge, expertise, and passion daily to provide home, herd, and individualized care for our resident elephants. Carrying out The Sanctuary's mission would not be possible without this team, and we are so incredibly grateful for them!
“Caring for elephants requires patience, perseverance, attention to detail, flexibility, empathy, problem-solving, and overall a gentle loving hand. We are so privileged to have a Caregiver team that encompasses all of that each and every day, and we’re humbled by how dedicated our staff is to providing everything the elephants need," said Kelly M., Elephant Care Training Manager and Kristy E., Elephant Care Program Manager.
Read on to learn more about what it takes to be an elephant Caregiver!
Since elephants eat between 200 and 600 pounds of food each day, much time is taken to ensure our elephants are receiving plenty to eat — and food preparation is often the first task in the morning! Summertime in Tennessee means a bounty of grasses and browse to dine on in the habitat, and this is also supplemented with “diets” prepared by Care Staff. These diets might include Mazuri, a type of feed specially formulated for elephants, probiotics, and other necessary medications, produce, and hay. On average, close to 2,000 pounds of produce is ordered to The Sanctuary each month, and Caregivers may chop up to 100 pieces of produce per day!
Caregivers deliver diets twice daily to the fence line nearest where the elephants have chosen to explore for the day. They use footprints, dung, and environmental clues such as a felled tree or broken limb to track where the elephants have ventured overnight and how they utilize their habitat during the day. With over 24 miles of fence line and 3,060 total acres, ATVs are used to travel back and forth from the barns and to transport supplies — but Caregivers also spend a large portion of their day on their feet, walking an average of over 12,000 steps per day!
At The Sanctuary, elephants are cared for in a Protected Contact system, which means elephants and Caregivers never share the same physical space, and training walls located around the habitat and barn offer protection for both the elephants and their human Caregivers. Caregivers earn the trust of each elephant, learning her preferences and respecting her wishes to participate in her own health care or simply walk away.
Using soft bamboo target poles and vocal cues, the elephants are taught to present their feet, ears, tusks, and bodies for inspection and care. Caregivers work with the Veterinary Team to develop individualized care plans that are then carried out at the training wall. On any given day, Caregivers (and sometimes Vet Staff) may offer simple treatments like dry scrubbing for skin exfoliation, or provide more complex care such as cold laser therapy or taking dental and radiograph images. They also work to desensitize the elephant to any upcoming procedures, such as an annual vaccination or blood draw, so that come time for the real injection, the elephant is relaxed and looking forward to her “jackpot” reward — a large, tasty fruit such as watermelon or cantaloupe.
Caregivers utilize enrichment items to encourage the elephants’ natural behaviors by adding something new and exciting to their environment. These items may target an elephant’s specific needs, from increasing movement to stimulating their senses to prolonging foraging.
Everyday items are often repurposed for enrichment, including fire hoses, tires, culverts, logs — even Christmas trees! Sometimes browse donated from the community can be incorporated into a setup, or Caregivers may cut browse on-site from The Sanctuary’s abundant bamboo forests or volunteer-planted banana trees. An Enrichment Committee made up of Care Staff from each of the three barns coordinates supplies needed for specific items, maintains a database of all approved items, and tracks progress toward enrichment goals for each elephant.
And of course, where there are elephants, there is poop! For most of the day, the elephants choose to explore, swim, nap, and graze out in the habitat, which gives Care Staff time to clean up after them in the areas surrounding the barn. Elephant dung at The Sanctuary can weigh up to 50 pounds, and elephants may defecate between 9 and 13 times per day! Although much of this is scooped by shovel, the barns also have a “track” system where Caregivers push the dung from the stalls onto a conveyor belt that leads to a trailer, which will then be used to transport the waste to our on-site compost pile. This compost is eventually used to plant trees, grass, and bamboo.
Foot care is another crucial aspect of a Caregiver’s role at The Sanctuary. They must go through extensive training to learn about elephant foot anatomy, foot problems in captive elephants, and preventative care.
Care Staff check each elephant’s feet several times a week at a Protected Contact training wall to inspect for rocks, cracks, abscesses, and any other issues, and watch for gradual changes through the seasons and years. They also may conduct foot scrubs and soaks, depending on foot care priorities for that elephant. Maintaining healthy feet means the elephant can explore the habitat each day to her heart’s content!
In addition to providing foot care and overall exceptional care for our nine resident elephants, Caregivers are tasked with a multitude of other responsibilities that do not always involve an elephant being present. For example, Care Staff load and unload supplies for the barn, file paperwork and log progress to track each elephant’s care, attend regular meetings with Vet, Facilities, and Management Staff, mow the grass along fence lines, take professional development courses, speak on behalf of The Sanctuary’s Education program, and so much more.
“I am excited to have this opportunity to recognize the dedication and commitment of The Sanctuary's Elephant Care Team and all the Caregivers who work so diligently to ensure every day is the best day for the elephants in our care.” — Janice Zeitlin, CEO
THANK YOU to our amazing Care Staff, and Happy Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day!