An elephant's education

Visitors to Washington's National Zoo witness a pachyderm's early lessons

When Kandula was born, the staff at the National Zoo in Washington knew that the 325-pound baby would need lots of space one day. Kandula is a male Asian elephant who will be 3 years old on Nov. 25. He already weighs close to 2,500 pounds.

Kandula's birth was a happy event at the zoo. Of the four Asian elephants living there, he is the only male. The zoo plans to expand its elephant habitat so that one day a herd of elephants can live and breed there. Asian elephants are endangered, and their wild habitat continues to shrink. Zoo elephants like Kandula offer hope for the future.

Kandula doesn't know he's part of a species-survival plan. But he's full of himself anyway. As a baby, he enchanted zoo visitors like me as he played with a tire and ball in his wading pool. He followed his mother, Shanthi, often tugging on her tail. He looked ready for mischief.

He still looks ready for mischief, but Kandula is not a baby anymore. He's beginning to grow tusks. And he's learning the lessons all young animals must learn, whether they live in the wild or in a zoo: how to cooperate with others, and how to do things for oneself. Such lessons can be critical to a wild elephant's survival. They are important for Kandula, too.

How Kandula learns

Kandula learns a lot from his mother. Shanthi was raised in Sri Lanka and came to the zoo as a gift from the children of that country. At first Kandula didn't know what to do with his trunk. By watching his mother he learned to use it for all kinds of things, from eating and drinking to spraying dust over his back. Kandula's keepers, Debra Flinkman and Debbie Flynn, say he began to imitate Shanthi when he was just a few days old.

One of the first things Kandula tried to do like Shanthi was give himself a dust bath. (Elephants do this to shoo away flies. The dust also acts as a sunblock.) Shanthi is very graceful with her trunk, and it must have looked easy to Kandula. But he couldn't get his own trunk to move in the right ways.

"There was dust everywhere," Debra says. But Kandula caught on. Now he sprays dust over his back and under his belly almost as well as Shanthi.

Kandula also learns from his keepers. Much of what Kandula's human companions are teaching him makes it easier for them to handle and care for him. These lessons will be especially important as he gets bigger. Fully grown, Kandula may weigh 6-1/2 tons. He must be willing to do what he's asked to - like lift his foot or roll on his side for his daily scrub-brush bath and health checks. Zoo elephants also must have their toenails (four on each foot) regularly filed. The best time to teach Kandula to accept such care is now, when he's relatively small and friendly.

The careful management of zoo elephants benefits not only these captive animals, but also their wild cousins. From zoo animals scientists gain important insights about elephant health, reproduction, and behavior.

Growling at his water bucket

When day-old Kandula growled at his water bucket, his trainers knew the little bull would be a challenge to train. But they and Kandula have worked well together. His lessons are about reward, not punishment. Special treats like grain cakes encourage Kandula to follow directions. When he's not in the mood, "timeouts" work well. The lessons end and the treats disappear for a time. Often, Kandula is the one who wants to get back to work.

Debra and Debbie have also learned from Kandula. He's shown them that he responds best to lessons that he can partly control. Now, if Kandula wants to walk away from a session, he can. No one chases him to bring him back. Maybe because he has a choice, he seems more willing to do as he's asked. Or maybe it's just not as much fun playing hooky if no one chases him.

Kandula will grow more aggressive as he gets older. In the wild, elephant societies are matriarchal (may-tree-AR-kul). In other words, mother elephants run the herds. Once male elephants reach their teens (they mature at much the same rate humans do and have comparable life spans), they often leave their mother's herd to live on their own. They become highly competitive when the time comes to breed with females. Eventually Kandula's trainers will work with him only from behind a protective barrier. He is already challenging them in little ways.

"Sometimes when we try to close the door, whether he's inside [the elephant house] or out," Debbie says, "he'll rush over and stick his foot in the way." He has a whole vocabulary of protests, she adds, ranging from noises that mean "Get off my ball!" (his favorite toy) to "Mommy, get over here!" which is more a demand than a request. Kandula works out a lot of his competitiveness playing with his swinging tires or splashing in his pool. He spends hours amusing himself this way or trying to get his mom to join him in a game. He especially likes his pool. That's where he first learned to use his trunk as a snorkel. When he was smaller he loved to wriggle under his mother as she cooled off in the water. He soon became just a little too big to slip easily under her tummy. The first time he got stuck he gave his keepers a scare.

"We were getting worried - he was down too long," Debra said, "when suddenly, up popped his trunk!" Kandula had figured it out himself.

Kandula has a reputation as something of a cutup. Once, when a wheelbarrow was left in his yard, he took a rake out, carried it around, and then snapped it in two - to visitors' delight.

For the most part, though, Kandula tries to do what he's told. He has even learned to stand quietly as a blood sample is taken from his ear. He was taught to tolerate this in many gradual steps. First he learned to stand in the right position. Then he got used to having his ear played with and washed. Next, he grew accustomed to the smell of alcohol (disinfectant), and finally to feeling a little pressure on his ear. Now he's not reluctant at all to cooperate with the vet.

More independent - up to a point

Kandula's success at learning is a sign of his intelligence. He's also becoming increasingly independent. As a baby he liked to stand directly under Shanthi, where he felt safest and could nurse whenever he liked. Now he is too big and nurses only a few minutes each day. Soon he will stop. He spends more time playing on his own. His keepers regularly give him new toys, to keep him stimulated. One of his favorites (beside his ball) is a cone-shaped bucket he carries around with his trunk. Like any kid, he also goofs around. It's hard not to smile when Kandula walks around his yard backwards, sticks a hind foot through a swinging tire to spin it, or puts "hats" of hay on his head.

The many noises he makes with his trunk sound more and more like a real elephant trumpet. But when you come right down to it, Kandula is still a kid.

"He's very independent - as long as he knows he can get back to Mom," Debra says.

I watched Kandula push his ball around the other morning, well apart from his mother. Suddenly he stopped, and raised his trunk to sniff the air. It looked as if he'd suddenly noticed that Mom wasn't right behind him. He ran back to Shanthi. He put the tip of his trunk in her mouth. Shanthi caressed him with her trunk.

"Look, Mommy," a young zoo visitor beside me exclaimed. "That's you. And that's me."

It takes a kid to know one.

A pachyderm's prehensile trunk is packed with uses

It's been called the Swiss Army knife of the animal world: An elephant's trunk is a hand, hoist, hose, vacuum, trumpet, snorkel, and shovel.

The trunk is actually the elephant's nose and upper lip. It has no bones, but more muscles and tendons (some 100,000) than we have in our entire bodies. An elephant can lift several hundred pounds with its trunk, yet its tip is as sensitive as a human finger. It can pluck a single blade of grass.

An elephant's trunk also provides clues to its ancestry. The fact that elephants breathe through their trunks while underwater led naturalists to believe that pachyderms are related to water-dwelling manatees. Early land-dwelling elephants would have had a built-in advantage - long trunks to gather leaves and other food that was out of reach for other animals.

You may have seen an elephant suck up water with its trunk. While an elephant can't drink through its nose, its trunk can hold and deliver two to three gallons of water to the elephant's mouth. Sometimes, instead of drinking the water, an elephant sprays it over its back for a cooling bath. They also use their trunks to collect and spray dust over their backs.

Trunks are trumpets, too, warning of danger or calling out greetings. Trunks communicate silently as well. Kandula's mother, Shanthi, caresses him with her trunk to show him she cares. Elephants entwine trunks to say hello and sometimes put their trunks in each other's mouths in greeting.

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