One of my favorite parts of my summer job at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has been learning to identify the elephants.
The Zoo has five African elephants, four female and one male. Because part of my job involves observing and recording their behavior, I have to know which elephant is which. More than a month into my job, I’ve achieved that — and I thought you might find it as cool as I did.
Let’s start with the easiest elephant to spot.
At 11 feet tall and almost 13,000 pounds, Willy, the bull elephant, isn’t just the biggest animal the Zoo has ever housed: he’s also one of the biggest in America. Because of his size, he’s easy to tell apart from the female elephants, all of whom weigh at least 2,500 pounds less than him and stand several feet shorter.
However, Willy would look distinctive even compared to other bull elephants. His trunk has deep, muscular grooves. More notably, for an unclear reason, Willy only has one tusk. His other one was surgically removed after an unknown injury, presumably a break deep enough it reached the nerve/pulp cavity. When a tusk cracks that deep, it must be removed to prevent infection. Whatever the incident spurring that surgery, it happened before Willy came to Cleveland — before, even, he went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where he lived from 1998 until 2011.
Another unknown is how 37-year-old Willy became sterile. Like losing his tusk, it happened decades ago: possibly at the now-defunct Four Bears Water Park in Michigan or at Zoomotion, a private entertainment company which provides animals for films. (Fun fact: Willy and Kallie, one of the Zoo’s females, lived in those two locations together. More on that later.) Willy’s keepers do not know how or when Willy was sterilized, although they do not think he was born infertile.
But at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Willy’s inability to breed comes in handy. All of the Zoo’s female elephants are past a healthy reproductive age: although they could bear calves, it would not be safe for them to do so. Willy being sterile means he can mate with the females, but with no possibility of reproduction. That certainty keeps both him and the females safer.
Altogether, Willy is the epitome of a gentle giant: laid-back, but bigger than you can imagine. The features he lacks don’t make him any less impressive.
The next-largest elephant is Kallie, the biggest of the females. On loan from the Philadelphia Zoo, 34-year-old Kallie actually arrived from the Pittsburgh Zoo’s International Conservation Center. She is distinctive among the females for more than her tall stature. She has even, long tusks and a long, straight tail. More notably, she hangs her head unusually low: from any angle, you can see her shoulders above her ears. This trait, more than any other, helps me identify Kallie.
Her arrival in Cleveland in 2011 was a reunion with Willy and two of the other females, Martika and Shenga. All four elephants lived as calves in the “Jumbo Lair”: eccentric millionaire Arthur Jones’ property in Ocala, FL. Jones, founder of the fitness brand Nautilus, flew 63 orphaned baby elephants from Zimbabwe to his 600-acre estate in 1983. Most African elephants in American zoos today come from Jones’ collection, including Willy, Kallie, Martika and Shenga.
Jones sold Martika in 1984 and Shenga in 1986. Kallie and Willy have the longest history together: Jones sold them both to Four Bears Water Park in 1989. Then, they both moved to Zoomotion, a private entertainment company, where they lived together until Willy went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. Kallie went to the Philadelphia Zoo a year later, where she stayed until 2009, when the Zoo closed its elephant exhibit and moved her to Pittsburgh.
Just two years later, she reunited with Willy, her longtime companion. Kallie gets along well with all the elephants. If you go to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, you may well see her with hay wedged between her tusk and trunk for safekeeping — a behavior Martika shares.
Playful and clever, Martika came to Cleveland from the Erie Zoo in 1997. Like Shenga, Tika has lopsided tusks from breaking them — an occurrence as common as breaking a nail. The one in the photo, at left, is her longest; her other tusk, which she broke more recently, is barely visible.
Because of their similar tusks (and size), Shenga and Tika can be hard to tell apart. I’ve come up with two ways to do that. The first, and easiest, is their tails. Tika’s long tail has a kink near the end; Shenga’s, however, is shaped like a backwards question mark. When I can’t see the elephants’ butts, I use their foreheads. While Shenga has a wrinkled, gravelly forehead, Martika’s is unusually smooth, with only a few grooves. Noticing this difference between their foreheads has become essential for me as an observer: of all the elephants, Shenga and Tika are the hardest to distinguish.
In personality, however, Tika is distinctive. She enjoys her baths, playing with the water and making bubbly noises. She plays games with Moshi, one of the other female elephants, during the day and at night: they stick their trunks through bars in the indoor paddocks to poke each other. She also developed the habit at one of her previous residences of tucking her treats and hay in between her tusk and her trunk, to stop other elephants from taking them. Wild elephants don’t do that: Tika came up with the behavior herself. The fact the Zoo’s other elephants now use that same trick means they learned it from Tika or coincidentally came up with it themselves.
Either way, that food-storing behavior exemplifies two of elephants’ greatest traits: their intelligence and ingenuity. With her smart, lively nature, Tika may be my favorite of the Zoo’s elephants. Only maybe, though: I love them all.
As I described earlier, Shenga and Martika look similar thanks to their size and tusks. However, Shenga’s gravelly forehead and question mark-shaped tail help me tell her apart. So, too, is her demeanor unique.
Another calf from Arthur Jones’ Jumbo Lair, Shenga left in 1986 and eventually ended up in the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE. Her keepers moved her to Cleveland in 2010 after Shenga’s sole exhibit mate in Omaha died. All elephants need companionship, as sensitive, social creatures. Shenga in particular thrives best in a herd.
That social nature shines through in her interactions with the other elephants. Shenga is friendly with the other females, but can also display dominance: at night, she sometimes wakes Martika up to take her sleeping spot. Most of the time, however, she is sweet and gentle.
In particular, Shenga has a loving relationship with Willy. The two elephants enjoy one another’s company, and I am told she likes playing with him. I was lucky enough to see one of the pair’s interactions during an observation. Willy stood by one of the gates, looking antsy and ill at ease. Shenga walked over and began rubbing her head against him, touching him with her trunk — making sure he was okay. In response, Willy rubbed his trunk across her back. The two elephants then stood together for a few minutes, heads against one another, tusks all but intertwined.
It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed.
Last in this list but first in life, 40-year-old Moshi is the oldest of the Zoo’s elephants. She’s also the smallest, standing feet shorter than Kallie, and the roundest: for some reason, her stomach is particularly rotund.
Moshi has two long, almost-even tusks: her right was filed down when she broke its tip. Like Martika, she also has a particularly smooth forehead. But her most identifiable feature, besides her size, is her cropped tail. Moshi’s tail was broken in an altercation with Jo, one of the Zoo’s former elephants, who was aggressive. (Jo died in 2012.) Yet Moshi has retained a sweet, fun demeanor, easily cooperating with her keepers and playing games with her fellow elephants.
Moshi and Martika are perhaps the closest among the female elephants: in addition to playing together, they also sleep side-by-side. Martika often stands sentinel, in a guard-like position, while Moshi sleeps, as a sign of protection and camaraderie. However, Moshi gets along with all the elephants. She often eats hay that they drop on the ground, as the elevated feeders are hardest for her to reach.
The Zoo’s only elephant not from Jumbo Lair, Moshi was born in South Africa. She lived in the Wildlife Safari in Winston, OR from 1979 until 1997, when she came to Cleveland. Since then, she’s been a staple of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s herd, providing friendship and an elder’s wisdom.
Now that you’ve read this whole post, I’d like to ask for a favor: the next time you go to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, don’t use male pronouns for the females. You have no excuse for making that mistake — one of my biggest pet peeves — anymore. Willy looks distinguished enough: you’ll know him when you see him.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe try telling the females apart, too. If I can do it, you can. You may even have fun with it — I know I have.