For this EleFACT Friday, we’re talking about feet and how walking on natural surfaces helps keep them healthy; it also reduces the need for excessive foot work in captive elephants. Elephants have evolved in such a way that their natural walking abilities help keep their feet in good working order.
Studies show that captive elephants who are raised and/or live in outdoor spaces with natural surfaces to walk on and plenty of space to move around, place their weight more on the lateral parts of their feet than on the middle of the pad. This keeps pressure from forming on the most sensitive portion of the foot while balancing their large body mass. They shift their weight naturally to protect the sensitive areas of the foot. However, this gait is modified when walking on hard, compact, or man made surfaces.
The research states that when elephants live in vast, outdoor spaces and travel over natural terrain, they are generally healthier than their counterparts who live on hard surfaces. Traveling across spans of land keeps them more athletic and their gait uncompromised. It also gives them the opportunity to use their feet by digging in the ground; they get natural wear by walking on rocks, sand, and other various organic surfaces. All of this keeps their pads supple and their nails worn down to healthy levels.
The studies also demonstrate that elephants kept in confined spaces for long periods of time or who are housed in small areas and on hard surfaces are more prone to foot disease than those with access to natural environments. Foot pads that get infected or cracked can possibly cause more weight to be placed on the sensitive areas of the foot, potentially accelerating disease. Elephants like Lady, who has a degenerative foot condition, require specialized trimming and nail filing that is designed to take pressure off of the areas of the foot that would normally have taken care of themselves, had she been allowed to live in a healthier environment.
Here at the sanctuary, we have witnessed many elephants arrive with feet in need of minor to moderate care, but that improve significantly when the individuals are simply given access to the natural world. Of course, that doesn’t mean that foot pads never need trimming or nails don’t need to be filed down; but those elephants with the healthiest feet can be attended to just once or twice per year, generally during the rainy season when they are softer from walking on damp ground. Mother Nature, space, and time are amazing healers.
Photo of Rana, who only needs periodic foot care at the sanctuary