Zoo officials struggling to integrate elephants

Officials at the San Diego Zoo are at their wit’s end in trying to figure out how three different groups of elephants can live together in the same habitat, it was reported Sunday.

“The elephants squabble, and it’s pretty impressive when they chase

each other and make noise,” Rod Owlett, the zoo’s animal-care supervisor told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “There’s a lot of theater involved out there.”

The zoo’s longtime elephant trio — Sumithi, Devi and Tembo — must learn to live with Cha Cha, Cookie, Mary and, for the first time, a male, Ranchipur, the Union-Tribune reported. The latter four are former residents of the zoo’s Wild Animal Park near Escondido, where an elephant herd originally from Swaziland is still on exhibit.

Zoo officials said integration is a delicate dance for zoo keepers because elephants build highly evolved communal networks centered on the most-confident female. Pachyderms are so family-oriented that the herd mourns when a member dies.

They said it will be worth the trouble if all or most of the Elephant Odyssey residents can live together.

To complicate the already complex merger, the Union-Tribune reported, the zoo adopted two former circus elephants from Texas in August after the U.S. Department of Agriculture took them away from an exhibitor. Now Tina and Jewel — two females who have lived together for years — must now be worked into the pachyderm dance.

In the end, keepers are depending on Sumithi to keep the pace of the entire group. But there has been a price tag for the matriarch, who recently lost 1,500 pounds through the zoo’s diet and exercise plan.

Because these elephants encounters always involve food — to soothe the elephants, keepers told the Union-Tribune, chow hound Sumithi is again sporting rolls around her middle.

“There are no rules. We can’t go to the research and say there are 10 other institutions that have taken two groups of elephants and intergrated them together,” Owlett told the Union-Tribune. “No one has done this before, and that also makes it cool.”

Owlett said he and his colleagues plan to share their findings with other institutions, eventually publishing a paper about their efforts.