Official word on the future of the elephant program at the Santa Barbara Zoo: Chief Executive Officer, Rich Block, revealed Thursday that Little Mac will be the zoo’s last elephant.
“The dynamics are there will be elephants in zoos, it’s just they’ll be in much larger exhibits, they’ll be in larger groups and there will be fewer institutions,” Block told reporter Beth Farnsworth.
Last week’s death of Sujatha or “Suzy” left Little Mac as the lone Asian elephant on exhibit for the first time in more than 40 years.
“When these elephants arrived here in 1972, we didn’t have all these standards for caring for elephants,” Block said. “And when they arrived, they were pretty small, you know, people were taller than the elephants.”
Not only did Mac and her former companion grow in size and popularity over the years, so did the list of requirements set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
“They have really tried to elevate the bar on this, working toward a minimum of three elephants, generally more, to develop more of a herd structure. We don’t have the space to create what would be required to provide the kind of facility that they are now kind of mandating,” Block said.
Block said the AZA is now encouraging zoos to also create space for much larger bull elephants.
Block said the one thing that didn’t change over the years was the close relationship between the popular pachyderms and their relationships with people, something the AZA recognized as zoo officials reapplied each year for an exception.
“The argument had been the fact the pair bonding of the two and their age and the special care required.”
Block said over the years Little Mac lost two of her four molars, requiring keepers to grind her food. He also cited the meticulous, daily foot care crucial to her health. He said the prospect of bringing in a new companion is not possible, for many reasons.
“Elephants are just not readily available and it’s not picking up the phone, calling another zoo and saying, ‘We need an elephant,'” Block explained.
Both Block and her keepers said in recent weeks that Little Mac’s special needs would be difficult to meet in most sanctuaries.
“The Elephant sanctuary in Tennessee is an AZA related facility,” Block said. “So, that actually would be an option but we’re not kind of thinking in that area yet.”
In the meantime, Block and other zoo officials said Little Mac is adjusting well without her longtime companion. She is eating and sleeping well, interacting with her keepers and doing her activities as she normally would. Block said she actually seems to have more energy and is enjoying her pool a little more often.
“We had four full time keepers that were looking at two elephants,” Block said. “Now we have the same four keepers looking at a single elephant. So, she is enjoying elevated level of attention.”
An elephant expert from the San Diego Zoo is scheduled to arrive at the Santa Barbara Zoo the first week of November to assess Mac and help determine what’s best for her: living out her life here, in her home of nearly 50 years. Or, moving her to another facility to join a herd.
Block said there is no timeline and keepers will take cues from Little Mac, however, either way, she will be the last elephant at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
If it’s decided that moving Little Mac to another facility is best, Block said at least two of her keepers will travel with her to help through the transition. However, at the golden age of 46, staying put might be best for the old gal.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Block said. “These have been two really great animals to work with.”