Spa Season for the Elephants
By Mindy Ussrey, Elephant Manager
Well, actually, every season is spa season inside the elephant barn. Taking care of the elephants’ feet is a year-round task for the keepers. Elephants spend 90% of their day on their feet (they do sleep lying down for about 2-3 hrs a night), so the health of an elephant’s foot is vital to the overall well-being of the animal. Not only do elephants use their feet to walk, but they also use their feet to help strip bark off of logs, to step up onto things to reach above their head, and even to communicate (they can feel seismic vibrations through the ground!).
Taking care of the elephant’s feet starts with a well-trained elephant. Our two female Asian Elephants, Jothi and Surapa, are trained to present all 4 of their feet up on a foot stand. The foot stand is merely a chain wrapped in fire hose, hung between two poles. A typical foot care session can last up to 30 minutes, so we make sure they are comfortable while standing. They are standing on rubber floors that are several inches thick, so they are always standing on a soft surface.
Being Asian Elephants, our girls have five toenails on their front feet and four toenails on their back feet. African Elephants have one less toenail on each foot. Elephants’ toenails are made of keratin, same thing our fingernails are made of. But instead of using an emery board like humans use, we use something a little stronger, an angle grinder! We make sure their nails are trimmed up off the ground so that all the pressure is put on the middle part of their sole or pad. If too much pressure is put on their nails, that can cause cracking and can lead to other issues.
The bottom, or sole or pad, of an elephant’s foot, is basically a large callous. In order to trim their pad, we use wood carving tools called Xacto blades. They come in a variety of shapes so we can trim larger or smaller areas as needed. These tools help clean cracks that develop on their pads. Those cracks act like the tread of our sneakers-they are contoured for better traction but need to be kept clean and free of debris. How annoying is it when you get a rock stuck in the sole of your shoe? Yeah, it’s kind of like that!
Their cuticles also need a good trimming. Their cuticles can get overgrown as well, so we use our good ol’ wire cutters to trim them. Fun fact: elephants’ sweat glands are in their cuticles!!
Sometimes we need to soak the elephants’ feet to soften the pads up. If the foot is too dry, the pad and nails can become extremely hard to trim, so we soak them to make it a little easier to work with. The soaking also helps disinfect anything that might be lingering on their feet. Both elephants are trained to put their feet inside the large rubber tub to soak for up to 15 minutes.
So the next time you go to your salon to get a pedicure, make sure you let your technician know that he/she has it easy-at least they don’t have to use power tools! Now get your flip-flops on and enjoy the summer!