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Little Rock Zoo's aging elephants fight arthritis with aerobics

"We provide activities; We exercise them; they get food, water; they get to play in a pool," she said. "We just want them to live a nice, healthy life in their golden years here at Little Rock."

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - No matter our size or species, it seems no one -- and nothing -- is immune to some of the struggles that often come with getting older.

The Little Rock Zoo is a retirement home of sorts for three aging Asian elephants. Sophie, 49, and Zina, 57, have arthritis.

"A lot of animals can get the same ailments as they get older as people do," said zoo elephant manager Kristin Warner. "One of the biggest ailments we have to deal with is arthritis."

It's an issue zookeepers address with a daily regimen of exercise and medication.

"What we do with our exercise is a lot like aerobics for people, with a little bit of yoga," Warner said.

She and her team walk all three elephants and guide them through stretches in an effort to keep them limber.

Warner described the arthritic elephants' medication as similar to an animal version of "Aleve."

"It's just an anti-inflammatory, anti-pain medication, and it's given once a day and that's all they really need," she said.

Animals tend to live longer in human care as opposed to the wild, so Warner said the zoo takes these measures to help the elephants maintain quality of life as they age.

"We provide activities; We exercise them; they get food, water; they get to play in a pool," she said. "We just want them to live a nice, healthy life in their golden years here at Little Rock."

May is National Arthritis Awareness Month. Nearly 53-million adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Exercise and medication are among many ways people find relief from the disease.

11 fun facts about Asian Elephants:

  1. Asian Elephants can live to be in their 60’s.
  2. They eat a lot. [Babe is the Little Rock Zoo’s largest elephant. She probably eats 2 ½ bales of hay per day. 10 pounds worth of grain and produce. And tree limbs from all the local parks.]
  3. Asian Elephants weigh tons. [Babe is about 10,700 pounds. She is probably the largest Asian Elephant you’ll see in the United States.]
  4. Asian Elephants lose the pigmentation in their skin as they age. [You can tell the elephants at the Little Rock Zoo are older elephants because of the reverse pink freckling on their faces.]
  5. Asian Elephants have much smaller ears than African Elephants. [African Elephants have much larger ears that are about the same shape as the continent of Africa.]
  6. Only the male Asian Elephants have large tusks. Females either have small ones or none at all.
  7. Asian Elephants typically have five toenails on their front feet and four toenails on their back feet. [Whereas, African Elephants typically have four in the front and three in the back.]
  8. Zookeepers treat the elephants’ feet almost like a horse hoof. Zookeepers use a file and trim their nails and pads of their feet. [One big ailment with elephants is they do a lot of work with their feet. So, the zookeepers are trained on how to file down the feet to make sure they’re nice and healthy.]
  9. Each elephant has their own personality. [Zina is very stubborn, old-lady-like. She likes things her way. She likes having a schedule. Whereas, Babe is their most laidback elephant. She is used for most of the public demonstrations. Babe is very food motivated. Sophie is in between Zina and Babe. She has a sassy side, but she’s also very sweet.]
  10. For Asian Elephants, the females stick together. They have a Matriarch who is the female in charge. All the other elephants are either aunts, cousins, or grandmothers. The males leave at a young age. They can form little bachelor herds but they only come around when the females are ready to breed.
  11. An Asian Elephant is pregnant for 22 months. The babies can weight up to 250 pounds at birth. [BIG BABY!] And the babies grow fast. They can gain up to 1,000 pounds per year in the first five years of their life.

BONUS: Elephants have very good memories. They can remember each other, they can remember old keepers. [Sophie and Zina actually knew each other before they came to the Little Rock Zoo. They hadn’t seen each other in about 20 years. So, when they came to Arkansas they remembered each other. But not for a good reason. They didn’t like each other. So, Zina doesn’t go into the enclosure with Sophie but does with Babe.]

BONUS #2: Elephants are also known to grieve elephants in their herd that has died. They’ll smell the bones and the bodies and can remember who that elephant was.

Behind the Scenes:

One way that the public can come and interact with the elephants is with the Little Rock Zoo’s “Behind the Scenes Tour.”

It’s $50 per person. You come in and Babe will paint you a picture and then you get to give Babe a bath, feed her and have your picture taken with her.

The money from the tour goes to conservation efforts that the zoo supports.

For more information on the Behind the Scenes Tours, click here.

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