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Monday November 4, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday November 4, 2013 MYT 9:17:41 AM
by david hunn
Three-quarters of 240 captive elephants surveyed were found to be overweight, which might lead to other health complications. — MCT
Zoo elephants are getting fat, study says. Or is that curvy?
DON’T tell Dumbo, but he’s got too much junk in his trunk. That spherical silhouette, it turns out, isn’t so healthy – even for elephants. Zookeepers have long suspected it. And now they have some science to back it up. America’s zoo elephants have gotten fat.
“Look at what percentage of the US population is currently obese. Are we surprised that we’re feeding our elephants a little too well?” said Anne Baker, former director of the Toledo Zoo, Ohio.
This fall, zoo researchers from across the country are wrapping up the biggest study of zoo elephant health in the nation’s history. And they’ve uncovered a range of major findings, from the health of elephant feet, to the miles they walk, to the prominence of their posteriors.
Over three years, the team examined more than 100,000 pages of medical records, 6,000 blood samples and 18,000kg of elephant dung. Subjects included 255 elephants in 70 zoos from Mexico to St Louis to Miami.
Preliminary findings are revealing. Keepers and activists have long worried about elephant foot and joint problems, attributed to hours spent on hard concrete and stone.
But researchers counted 75% of the elephants in this study without joint problems, as well as a noticeable decline in foot issues since 2011. Zookeepers figured an increased use of grass, rubber and sand flooring in elephant pens has helped.
In addition, elephants in the study walked more than some believed – about 5.8km on average a day, up to a maximum of about 17km.
That, said Cheryl Meehan, an animal welfare scientist and the study’s project manager, stacks up well against distances documented in recent studies of walking among wild elephants.
“If you pay attention to the public press, often one of the main criticisms is that elephants don’t walk enough in zoos,” Meehan said. “Those criticisms were made largely in the absence of any validated scientific data.”
The study also unveiled a few concerns. Two-thirds of the animals studied, for instance, behaved in repetitive manners, such as swaying or pacing, which are often considered signs of mental or physical stress. But it’s the study of elephant weight that has, so far, gathered the lion’s share of attention.
Researchers evaluated 240 elephants for body conditions. “It started by looking at a lot of elephant butts,” said Kari Morfeld, a postdoctoral scholar at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Morfeld and her collaborators developed a scale, from one to five, that rated every elephant by the roundness of their rumps and the bulge in their back bones, among other factors.
Just 4% were tagged as too skinny. And nearly three-quarters of the elephants scored a four or five – squarely overweight. Moreover, the study found a correlation between healthy hindquarters and – unsurprisingly – more exercise, and smaller, more frequent meals.
Researchers point out that the issue really isn’t funny. Those hefty hineys can lead to, for instance, a decline in female reproductivity – something zoos monitor quite closely. Elephants in the wild can ovulate, or “cycle,” into their 50s, said Janine Brown, a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian.
Yet zoo elephant fertility can shut down a decade earlier, Brown said. Her research, included in this study, found that more than 40% of the Asian elephants and about half the African elephants were having cycling issues.
But the problem was less likely, she said, in elephants with better body weights.
The study had some logistical challenges. The team had to gather and track thousands of photos, blood specimens, faecal samples and other data points provided by zoos about their elephants. And the elephants didn’t always co-operate.
“We had the occasional smashing and eating of the equipment,” said Matthew Holdgate, a Portland State University graduate student, regarding the GPS ankle bracelets worn to track walking.
Some long-standing critics don’t believe the study is worth much.
“Housing elephants in captivity in zoos is a growing controversy,” said Nicole Meyer, director of the elephant protection campaign for the California advocacy group In Defence of Animals. The study, she fears, could just be cover for the zoo industry. She has difficulty believing some of the initial results – zoo elephants, for instance, are still dying from their foot problems, she said. “That’s why we’re so interested in seeing the actual findings,” she added.
But Baker, the former Toledo director, thinks the study is good science, and great for elephants. Keepers are already talking about how to adjust their care, she said. For instance, some may begin feeding hay, an elephant’s main meal, with lower protein content. Others may have to stop giving quite so many treats, she said. – St. Louis Post-Dispatch/ McClatchy Tribune Information Services
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Environment, Environment, ecowatch, captive animal, elephant
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