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Life with Little Mac

Santa Barbara Zoo’s Last Asian Elephant

Life with Little Mac

Santa Barbara Zoo’s Last Asian Elephant

Photo: Paul WellmanSanta Barbara Zoo’s Little Mac

The tidy workroom was filled with the aroma of fresh popcorn, one of the treats being prepared for Little Mac, the last of the Asian elephants to call Santa Barbara Zoo home. Mac was still in her sleeping quarters when I arrived for my behind-the-scenes tour at 9 a.m. Elephant Manager Liz Beem gave me a cinnamon hay pellet to use as an introductory offering. The 48-year-old pachyderm pressed her face against the smooth metal slats and poked her trunk through to take it, bathing my hand with her warm breath. Although I’d visited the elephant exhibit many times, standing a foot from her was extraordinary.

Little Mac has lived in Santa Barbara for more than 40 years. She arrived in 1972 with her “sister” Sujatha (aka Susie), both from India. Since Sujatha passed away last fall, the elephant keepers (there are four, including Beem) have been closely monitoring Mac to decide what, if anything, needs to change now that she is the lone elephant.

Pachyderms are highly intelligent herd animals with complex social societies. They are one of the only other mammals ​— ​aside from humans, dolphins, and apes ​— ​that exhibit self-awareness. Therefore, when Sujatha passed away, there was concern about how that would affect Little Mac’s subsequent quality of life. “The goal isn’t to just have her live out her remaining years; it is to have her thrive … to find a path that provides enrichment and interest,” explained the zoo’s CEO, Rich Block. 

The goal isn’t to just have her live out her remaining years; it is to have her thrive … to find a path that provides enrichment and interest.

Santa Barbara is a long way from Mysore, India, where Little Mac and Sujatha were born. Sujatha’s mom had worked in a logging camp, a common job for adult Asian elephants, and Mac was found alone in a nearby forest. The two calves spent time at the Mysore zoo before Santa Barbara traded sea lions for them, and they arrived here in 1974. The wee pair were both less than four feet high and lived in the barnyard area until their current enclosure was constructed in the late 1970s. The only time they have spent away was an 18-month stint in Fresno in 2003-2004 while their space was being renovated and updated.

Elephants have been in zoos for more than 100 years, but only in the past two decades has there been focused research regarding their needs, which answers the often-raised question of how a small zoo like Santa Barbara was able to obtain elephants in the first place. Forty-odd years ago, when Little Mac and Sujatha moved to the Central Coast, standard procedures were different. As ecology (i.e., the study of organisms and their environment) came into public consciousness, spurred in part by the 1960s environmental movement, people’s understanding of what captive animals require started to change. Currently, the trend is toward elephants living in larger familial groups in which they are able to reproduce naturally and play out social dynamics. To that end, elephants are now being located (and relocated) in places that incorporate a wildlife park setting, such as at the San Diego Zoo. There is also one facility in Tennessee called the Elephant Sanctuary (elephants.com).

Since Sujatha and Mac’s arrival, the zoo community has carried out thorough assessments of elephants in their charge. A few years ago, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which Santa Barbara is an accredited member, received a large Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant that allowed an extensive study of elephants in AZA-accredited facilities. Ironically, the study found no evidence that enclosure size adversely affected captive elephants, yet lack of space tends to be the major critique leveled at zoos. 

Photo: Paul WellmanLittle Mac is an Asian elephant who came to the Santa Barbara Zoo in 1972 as a baby. When she arrived, she was less than four feet tall.

Unfortunately, there is little any zoo, including Santa Barbara, can do to change that. “Most of us wouldn’t argue that we’d love to have more space,” Block said. “But what we have is what we have. And that’s what we have to work with.” The IMLS study also acknowledged the importance of social relationships. “An institution like ours, with just two animals, got exceptions along the way … because of our unique situation, the age of the animals, etc. It is probably the smallest elephant exhibit in an accredited zoo almost anywhere. It’s small but it is one of the most dynamic exhibits anywhere as well,” Block said. Now that Mac is alone, the highest priority is to understand what her needs are going forward. 

Dreaming of Elephants

Asian elephants are one of three recognized species in the Elephantidae family ​— ​the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant being the other two. Genetically, Asian elephants are more closely related to the wooly mammoth than their sub-Saharan kin. They are also fewer. The knobby-headed creatures are listed as “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with a rough estimation of 50,000 in the wild. African elephants, by contrast, exist in numbers closer to 500,000 and currently maintain “Vulnerable” status on the ICUN’s list. 

Habitat loss and fragmentation are two of the main threats to Asian elephant populations ​— ​poaching is less common because the animals are revered in the Hindu culture, which permeates India and other Asian countries where Asian elephants live ​— ​with human encroachment along elephants’ ancient migration corridors resulting in fatalities to both parties. Elephants can be highly destructive, eating and trampling crops and destroying towns, while electrocution and railway accidents are two major causes of Asian elephant deaths.

Far from the hazards of her wild brethren, Little Mac begins her days being weighed by exiting her indoor enclosure and stopping on a floor scale just outside, which is part of what the keepers call the “veterinary stall.” As Sujatha grew sicker, she wasn’t eating as much, and, as the subservient elephant, Mac followed suit. Since Sujatha’s death, however, Mac has regained about 400 pounds and Beem is satisfied that she has reached a healthy weight. 

The scale serves as the floor for a cattle-chute-like device that allows the staff to perform myriad procedures on Mac. Recently she had some ingrown hairs on her tail and needed a laser treatment. According to Beem, Mac is very comfortable in the chute, and the staff can maneuver safely around her. “We try to be able to limit the number of procedures we do in here,” she said, “and [instead] ask her to cooperate with us [outside the chute]. … Although, she is trained to do pretty much everything in here as well.”

Photo: Paul WellmanElephants naturally develop cracks in their calloused feet, so to keep rocks and other debris from becoming embedded in them, Little Mac gets a mani-pedi every day. “Sometimes when we are filing her nails, she’ll start sticking her foot out more and more as she relaxes,” said Elephant Manager Liz Beem.

Once weighed, Mac ambled off into her yard to see what was awaiting her there. The staff had arrived at 7 a.m. to prepare Little Mac’s area for the day, placing puzzles around, building and/or destroying dirt mounds, hiding edible goodies in the arch of an umbrella ​— ​basically setting up fun and mentally stimulating things for Mac to do. “She keeps really busy,” said Beem. “She kind of just surveys what is out there and figures out [what she wants to play with]. Then she’ll survey again and decide what’s the next best thing.” 

The day I visited, Mac’s first choice was a circular tube loaded with oats, Cheerios, and cinnamon hay pellets. There was a small opening on the side of the tube, and Mac had to manipulate the device into just the right angle to get the treats to fall out of the hole. She used her trunk to scoop up the fallen bits into a pile and then picked them up with the tip of her trunk and put them in her mouth. Watching her in action, I marveled at the dexterity of her proboscis as she twisted the tubing around and upside down to work the food out.

Next on the agenda was a foot wash. Mac, who responds to verbal commands, proceeded to lift one of her massive back feet into a large opening in the fence between her and us. “We work in a method called restricted contact, which means there is always going to be some level of barrier between us and her,” Beem explained. “We always work in what we call the two-person rule” ​— ​one person focuses Mac’s attention with verbal commands, a training target pole, and treats while the other scrubs her foot. 

Watching over Mac is a seven-day-a-week job, and so the team of four ​— ​Beem, Patrick Abtey, Monique Loya, and Emily Heisler ​— ​alternate shifts. “There are always at least two elephant keepers here every day. Some days there are more,” said Beem. Elephant care is so specific that it is the only “line” that has four keepers for a singular species. “It is quite specialized in the training, and the relationship is the biggest part. Mac is good about working with us, but she is definitely particular about having familiar faces around. … She needs interaction. She’s been used to lots of different kinds of interaction throughout her entire life, way back in the days when keepers would go in [to her enclosure]. … We become part of [her] herd.”

Photo: Paul WellmanSince 1972, Santa Barbara Zoo visitors have had the unique opportunity to see Asian elephants up close. Little Mac (pictured) serves as an ambassador for her species, fostering love and admiration among the people who visit her.

Abtey has the longest history with the zoo, starting as a volunteer when he was still in high school. After graduating from Santa Barbara City College, he transferred to UC Davis, earned a BA in behavioral science, and worked with pachyderms at a number of zoological institutions before returning to Santa Barbara Zoo two years ago. “I was just always attracted to elephants,” he said. “They are so charismatic, they have so much personality, and they are extremely intelligent and a lot of fun to work with. They are individuals, and so it’s fun to figure them out and let them figure you out. … Some are more curious than others; some are more naughty; some are more intelligent than others; some of them like to be around people more than others. Every one is different.”

Loya is the newest member of the team, hired in 2018 with a college degree in wildlife conservation. Although she began working with the gorillas and giraffes, she joined the elephant team when Sujatha was ailing. “I love it, so now I don’t want to leave.” 

Heisler got her zoo start as a volunteer three years ago. “When they first hired me, I did the barnyard line, so some small animals; I was helping out on gorilla/giraffe for a little bit too. I just got trained in koalas, so that’s fun. [Elephants] are definitely my favorite. I like the team and the setup, and I like Mac a lot.”

Elephant care is so specific that it is the only ‘line’ that has four keepers for a singular species.

As manager of the elephant program, Beem is the team leader. The UCSB grad came to the zoo in 2008, volunteering as an Animal Care Aid; eight months later she joined the elephant crew. Beem has been with Little Mac for more than a decade, serving as senior elephant keeper since 2014. In June 2018, Beem was promoted to her current position. 

To learn the specificities of care, all keepers working with elephants at AZA facilities must attend classes. “AZA puts on annually what’s called PEM 1, Principles of Elephant Management,” said Beem. “That’s a sit-down course where there are instructors from all over the U.S. who go through the philosophies of training and enrichment and foot care and things along those lines. Every elephant keeper has to go through that class. So literally there is elephant school. And there are follow-up courses, such as PEM 2,” which is much more immersive, hands-on training.

Back in the yard, Mac is running through her daily exercises of stretching and mobility training. “We will do leg exercises where she is doing Rockette kicks,” Beem said. “She can do pretty high kicks with her front legs even at this stage of her life, which is great. She’s a very limber elephant at 48 years old.”

Pachyderms’ Future at the S.B. Zoo

One thing is certain: The zoo will not be getting any more elephants. Whether Mac will spend the rest of her days here or be transferred to another zoo with an existing elephant population remains to be seen. Currently, she appears to be happy and is healthy. The four keepers she shared with Sujatha now tend to her alone. Mac does not show ​— ​nor has she ever shown ​— ​signs of psychological distress, such as repetitive swaying. She is in a home that is familiar to her with people who are part of her “herd.” “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that everything that we do going forward with Mac really is in her best interest,” assured Block. 

Regardless of one’s philosophical beliefs about zoos, the chance to see an elephant close up is remarkable. To that end, Little Mac serves as an ambassador for her species, fostering love and admiration among the people who visit her. When that caring is then extrapolated to the animal world at large, the wondrous creatures have a much better chance of avoiding extinction in the wild world. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Photo: Paul WellmanMental engagement is a central part of Little Mac’s daily routine. This harmonica is just one of many stimulating items at her disposal. Using her breath, the pachyderm creates a lilting melody.

4•1•1 | Santa Barbara Independent’s Pints for Press presents journalist Michelle Drown and the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Rich Block and Liz Beem on Wednesday, March 27, at 5:30 p.m., for a pint at Night Lizard Brewing Company (607 State St.), where they’ll discuss elephants under human care and how Little Mac is doing since Sujatha’s passing. For more on Little Mac, see sbzoo.org/animal/asian-elephant/.

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