Elephant feet are nuanced and complicated and still a leading cause of death for captive elephants. Lady’s feet aren’t just uncomfortable or an inconvenience, they have defined part of her life. As much as we would like to go in and ‘fix’ everything, we can’t do that safely. Now that she is allowing foot trimming, each trim and file are interconnected to the rest of that foot, her other feet, her overall stance, and her well-being. Doing too much at once can destroy the integrity of the foot, put too much pressure on a different foot, and, quite simply, make things worse. Elephants have been euthanized for these very overzealous actions. We will try our best to explain what and why is being done. It’s not easy, but we know it is part of understanding Lady’s struggles and the toll captivity can take on an elephant’s life. Here is a post we wrote that talks about some foot basics, so today’s post doesn’t turn into a book.
For those who watched our last live feed, we mentioned that Lady started to show discomfort in her front right foot. It was the impetus for not continuing with having her share a yard with Rana. Her foot was not only uncomfortable, but because she has such a strong flight response, it was making her incredibly insecure when in the same space as another elephant. The last thing we want to do is cause negative interactions, so we listened to what she was showing us and tried to push forward with training to be able to trim her feet. Now that we have been able to work on her feet for about two weeks, we understand more about their condition.
Her front feet are significantly worse than her back feet. Both have overgrown pads, nails, and cuticles. Although untrimmed cuticles may sound very superficial, it is often where bacteria are introduced and able to travel deep within the foot. Lady’s front nails are so overgrown they grow to the side, causing pressure and an uneven gait. But the bottom of the feet is where it can get scary. Layers of untrimmed pads trap dung, bacteria, and can coverup old abscesses (both active and inactive.) Pads should be firm, but Lady’s are spongy and porous- which aids in retaining bacteria and makes them more difficult to trim. Instead of easily cutting away, they tend to compress and move with the knife. While caring for healthy feet is relatively painless, trimming Lady’s feet causes a level of discomfort due to their current condition, even with the sharpest tools. It’s part of what is so impressive with how cooperative and stoic she is being.
On a positive note, as we trim away pad, we have not yet uncovered our worst fears. She has some soft spots, but for now, they are all reasonable. Her grooves are incredibly deep and interconnected, and we are widening those, but it’s slow going. One of the elephants in TN had horrific feet. As her pads were trimmed, layers of inactive abscesses were uncovered, filled with dried pus. But it wasn’t until her necropsy that digging further revealed a giant pocket, further up. It’s impossible to know what you will uncover, so although Lady’s feet are far from healthy, we can still feel good about what we are finding up until now.
With every session, we have to ensure that we are not making the pad uneven or causing pressure on a different part of the foot that will impact her stance. Lady’s pads are incredibly overgrown to the inside of her front feet, so much that her feet hang over the pad on the outside, and she stands bow-legged. That has to be corrected slowly, not to cause discomfort to her joints. Her body has been like this for many years; an overnight fix wouldn’t be a positive thing. She walks very stiffly on her left front leg (chronic, not new), which is most likely a result of having to shift her weight off of her right front foot due to pain. We are unsure of exactly what is going on with her right front foot that is causing her to focus on it more; she will blow dirt on it and lift it on occasion. But we can’t trim the nails to their appropriate length without putting more pressure on what is already causing her discomfort. We are not trimming for appearance. We are trimming to restore their health- slow and steady.
All of that being said, what has been done is already making a difference. We had grown accustomed to Lady’s slow and methodical steps, but now she is a bit of a wild child. For the past few days, her speed has picked up significantly, and we find ourselves laughing with her at her new level of spunk. Our hope is that this is due to increased comfort, but there is no definitive way to know. We have taken thermal images prior to trimming and will take comparative photos in a couple of weeks. Fairly soon, we will give Lady a break from her trimming, allow her pads to harden, making it possible to continue working on her nails and making some more adjustments.
As we have stated before, her feet will need lifelong care and will probably never be ‘normal.’ She most likely suffers from chronic osteomyelitis (no cure) but can only be diagnosed through radiographs. But, as these past two weeks have shown, we can bring her a level of comfort that she hasn’t known in years. And our bigger hope is that if she feels more secure physically, it will allow her to feel more secure emotionally. Because although she has taken a break from sharing a yard with Rana, elephant family is still one of the most important things in her life.
Next and last foot post (for now), we will talk about her care regimen.
April 27, 2020
LADY’S STEPS OF HOPE SERIES (April 2020)