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Brandi Guffey: A Day in the Life of an Elephant Intern

Brandi Guffey and elephant at Zoo Atlanta Brandi Guffey and Kelly (African elephant) at Zoo Atlanta

Fortunately, this past summer I was granted the opportunity to work as an intern at Zoo Atlanta within the elephant department.  This included the care of elephants, warthogs, and meerkats. The internship lasted from the first week of May to the first week of August. I worked four, eight-hour days every week. This was an unpaid internship, but the experiences, knowledge, and networking that I gained this summer were more than I could have ever asked for.

My internship consisted of the maintenance and care of these animals: Kelly and Tara (both of whom were 33-year old female African elephants); Shirley (a 10-year old female warthog) and Eleanor (Shirley’s two-year old daughter); Prince (a 14-year old male meerkat and the father to the other meerkats); Scurry, Sniff, and Scarlett (all female meerkats); and Blaze (a male meerkat).

Each morning, the other elephant keepers and I would clean the exhibits, put out food, and set up enrichment activities to keep the animals active during the morning hours. Cleaning the elephant exhibit took the longest time because it was the largest exhibit. Not only did the waste from the yard and the barn have to be hauled out in wheelbarrows, but also these entire areas had to be raked, swept and hosed.  I normally had an orange tint on my legs first thing in the morning from raking red clay dirt.

Prince the meerkat warthogs
Above (from left to right): Prince (meerkat) and Shirley and Eleanor (warthogs)

Enrichment was always one of my favorite things. Enrichment activities within zoological facilities are vital to the well being of the animals. Meerkat enrichment was always a lot of fun because it usually involved changing around their zoo habitat or giving them crickets/mealworms inside an object, which they must manipulate to get to these insects. Warthog enrichment involved filling up their wallows with water. During the hot summer days, this was important because warthogs lack sweat glands and are unable to cool themselves. The warthogs wallow in the mud to cool themselves, and they coat themselves in mud, which acts as sunscreen/bug repellent. Elephants also lack sweat glands, so they wallow and throw mud on themselves as well. I helped with the popular enrichment activity of bathing the elephants to clean them and to cool them down. They especially loved getting bathed with a fire hose. During “elephant cardio,” two keepers would go outside of the exhibit with food and call the elephant back and forth across the yard. The elephant then received a treat of cut up celery, rutabaga, apple, carrot, etc. This was a good way to get the elephants engaged, exercised, thinking, and moving. Enrichment was great in building positive relationships with the animals, and when I could actually see the animals enjoying these activities, it made it worthwhile.

Each day was a different experience and not a single day was ever the same. One of my favorite activities was working with the elephants and giving them directions. This was usually done by verbal commands and body language. Both elephants knew about 65 different commands and signals that were used in their husbandry and care. Everything we required of the elephants was completely voluntary; we never forced them to do anything. It’s important to give them choices, given their high cognitive abilities. Cleaning and scrubbing their feet was messy, but fun and important.  Weighing the elephants twice a month was an interesting task, and it was fun to see the reactions of zoo guests when they realized just how much four-ton elephants weigh.  Both elephants were included in several research studies conducted by students from Georgia Tech and Emory University, and I was fortunate enough to help out in these studies.

One of my favorite summer activities was informing the public about the importance of each zoo animal, especially the elephants. I loved getting to talk to young kids who were fascinated by the animals. To see their faces light up when I talked to them about the animals reminded me of a young version of myself and what inspired me to be as passionate about the conservation of animals as I am today.

The best part of this past summer was probably the relationships I made.  The zoo staff were so willing and eager to help young college students such as myself to learn. I was able to network within the zoo. I was thankful to meet privately with the Director of Research, the Curator of Mammals, and one of the Associate Veterinarians. I could not recommend this internship any more highly to other people. I wish everyone could experience and learn all that I have learned. Elephants are in danger of going extinct in the future because of the ivory trade and poaching. I wish more people could witness their intelligence, individuality, beauty, and their importance to this planet.

Brandi Guffey and elephant at Zoo Atlanta Tara the elephant
Above (from left to right): Brandi giving an elephant a treat, and Tara loves to swim, and if we give her the right treat she will gladly go for a dip in the pool. This is bran mash in the tub, one of her favorites.

Kelly the elephant's painting

One of the enrichment activities we would do with the elephants is allow them to paint. This was a picture that I had Kelly paint. She held the brush in her trunk and moved it in a stroke-like motion. The splatters were made by using a wire siphon with paint on it and having her blow on the siphon to create a splatter appearance.

Watch Zoo Atlanta Youtube videos of meerkat diet preparation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pnnq1IWdKXg) and elephant diet preparation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M192U98M2CM)

Web manager's note:  Brandi Guffey is in the UNCP COMPASS program. You can read more about her by visiting her "spotlight" on the home page for the Biology Department website.

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