At the end of February, Malaika began struggling with mobility and experienced severe changes in her appetite. After days of close monitoring and treatments, zookeepers say she began to bounce back. Since that time, she has continued making improvements.
Despite Malaika’s positive progress, zookeepers say her health problems have resulted in issues that will likely stay with her for the rest of her life. For example, Malaika has bowing and lack of strength in her right rear leg, which her keepers expect to worsen as she ages.
“Some people are surprised to hear that our elephants deal with some kind of ailment, from time to time, but that’s why they’re here with us,” said Jason Bredahl, Encounter Africa animal care manager. “Our elephant center was designed specifically to care for aging female elephants and to help them with physical challenges as they age. Our keepers and veterinary staff are some of the most knowledgeable elephant experts in the profession.”
Malaika is one of six “Golden Girls” in Encounter Africa, along with Missy, Kimba, Lucky, Jambo and LouLou. Although they are all African elephants, each one has a unique personality and distinguishable physical features.
According to CMZ, Malaika, the youngest of the herd, has experienced the most life-threatening issues and Missy, the eldest, has been in relatively good health for her age.
“There’s quite a range in their ages, and it’s not necessarily true that the older elephants need more specialized care than their younger friends do,” Bredahl said. “Over time, some have experienced weak limbs or digestive issues, some have arthritis, some have issues with their feet or tusks, and some have all of the above. We work to proactively lessen the impact of expected age-related issues and address anything else that pops up along the way.”
CMZ describes its Wilgruen Elephant Center as a type of retirement community for elder elephants. Elements of the specialized elephant center include rubberized flooring, natural substrate throughout most of the barn, surveillance that allows the team to check on the ladies overnight, and spaces with activities designed to keep them moving.
Keepers track each elephant’s appetite, their mobility and interest in training, for example, along with individual indicators that reveal progress or declines in specific ailments, like a stiff knee or ongoing digestive issue. The team reviews each elephant’s data regularly, and makes adjustments to their environment, treatments or routines with hopes to maintain their quality of life.
“With our experience and the support of our colleagues, our Golden Girls are in great hands here,” Bredahl said. “They’re living their best lives with us.”