Monday, July 21, 2003

Cedric Mulhauser, 13, visiting from Geneva, Switzerland, reaches out to an elephant's trunk at Honolulu Zoo's "Breakfast with a Keeper" event.


Creature Comfort

A Honolulu Zoo program
lets visitors get up close
to learn about different animals

Hold on to your belongings at the Honolulu Zoo. It isn't the humans you have to watch out for -- it's those rascal elephants. The animals' trunks contain 40,000 muscles and "is so dexterous that they can pick up a penny off the ground," said Amanda Kaahanui, the zoo's head instructor.

In the wild, they use those trunks to eat, move objects, drink, shower and nuzzle loved ones. But in the zoo, they enjoy removing people's hats and sunglasses, according to Kaahanui. "I've even seen them remove watches ... they are good," she said.

Fun facts about elephants and other animals were presented at a recent "Breakfast with a Keeper" program, held once a month at the zoo. Each session focuses on different animals.

Children and adults were allowed to get up close to feed the elephants apples, one of the animals' favorite treats. But participants stood behind a safety chain to avoid getting stepped on by accident.

"I thought the elephant would take my hand off," said 6-year-old Antonio Guardascione, who enjoyed interacting with the animals. His 8-year-old brother Mario nodded in agreement. Both were glad to find the beasts were gentle, even if the ends of their trunks were a bit slimy.

Mario Guardascione, 8, clowns around with the elephant. Next to him is his brother Antonio, 6, and Cedric Mulhauser.

The large beasts eat about 150 pounds of food each day. An elephant in the wild would travel more, requiring about 600 pounds of food per day Kaahanui explained. The elephant's zoo diet of hay, grasses and fruits is also more nutritious than the bark, vines, grass and leaves available to them in the wild.

Mari, 27, and Vaigai, 17, graciously accepted their snacks in the sand ring area behind the elephant exhibit, created to provide a softer environment for their feet.

"Elephants in captivity often encounter foot problems," said Kaahanui. They are not walking as much as they would in the wild and tend to suffer from cracks and foot infections, she added. "It's similar to a person wearing shoes all day and then taking them off and walking barefoot."

They also don't walk flat-footed, but on their toes. This helps them to hear better, she said.

The group also learned that elephants have poor eyesight, acute hearing, and a sparse coat of bristly hair. Elephants, also go through four sets of teeth -- two on top and two on the bottom -- in a lifetime, about 70 years.

Elephants make a wide range of noises -- growls, roars, grunts and snorts -- that they use as warnings, greetings, calls of distress or to signal other animals. A loud trumpeting noise is used to gather a herd together.

The tour started in a classroom where skulls, animal skins and a replica of an elephant tooth were passed around for close inspection.

Many of the learning tools, including a zebra skin pillow and fox and coyote furs, were donated to the zoo by members of the community.

Elephants were not the only subjects of the lessons. Kaahanui talked about other zoo creatures as well.

"Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa," she said. "They are very territorial and can't be seen underwater." Hippos are also so dense and full of muscle that they sink to the bottom of a water source, she said. "They move their feet like a ballerina to get back to the top of the water. Baby hippos ride on adults' backs to get air."

The tale of the Galapagos tortoise also held the audience's attention. Sailors once captured the tortoises as a source of fresh food. "The tortoise could live for almost one year (aboard the ship)," said Kaahanui. Once the creature was eaten, the shells were used as trays.

Now, the turtles are protected by the government as an endangered species.

Kaahanui also talked about ways animals hunt and capture prey. She said she would prefer death by a lion rather than a hyena, explaining that hyenas work in groups, ripping open their prey's belly and eating the victim alive.

A lion goes for its prey's throat with large canine teeth to bring about a quick death. The lion does not begin eating until it's certain that its prey is dead.

After all the treats for the elephants were gone, families were encouraged to take their time in exploring the zoo on their own. Heeding Kaahanui's lessons, they seemed extra cautious in approaching the hyenas.

Summer at the zoo

Breakfast with a Keeper: In-depth behind-the-scenes tour, 8:30 to 10 a.m. Aug. 10. Cost is $12 and includes a continental breakfast.

Ohana Adventures: Children ages 5 and up create treats for animals to play with or eat, 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 7 (mammals), Sept. 14 (birds), Sept. 21 (endangered species) and Sept. 28 (primates). Cost is $45 for a team of three ($5 for each additional person), $160 for all four sessions. Each group must include an adult.

Snooze in the Zoo: Campfires, night tours and more, 5:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. this Friday, Aug. 30 or Sept. 26. Cost is $35 for ages 5 and up; $10, ages 3 to 4; children under 2, free.

Twilight Tours: Discover what happens at night in the zoo, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16. Cost is $10 adults, $5 children.

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