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Zoo elephants are too tubby, study finds

St. Louis Post-DispatchAmerica’s zoo elephants have gotten fat. This fall, zoo researchers from across the country are wNovember 3, 2013 

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A study of 255 elephants in 70 zoos – from Mexico to St. Louis to Miami – found three-fourths of them were overweight.

ALLISON DIAZ — 2011 MCT FILE PHOTO

America’s zoo elephants have gotten fat.

“Look at what percentage of the U.S. population is currently obese. Are we surprised that we’re feeding our elephants a little too well?” said Anne Baker, former director of Ohio’s Toledo Zoo. “We’re feeding ourselves a little too well.”

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 40,000 pounds of elephant dung. Subjects included 255 elephants in 70 zoos from Mexico to St. Louis to Miami.

Researchers hope to submit the study to scientific journals for publication as soon as this winter. But even preliminary findings, they said, 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 percent 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.

“This is really good news,” Jill Mellen, a scientist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, told zoo professionals at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ annual conference in September in Kansas City, Mo. “This is cause to celebrate.”

In addition, elephants in the study walked more than some believed – about 3.6 miles on average a day, up to a maximum of about 11 miles. 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. And nearly three-quarters of the elephants were 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 heinies can lead to, for instance, a decline in female reproductivity – something zoos monitor quite closely.

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