In the elephant world, you often hear mentions of foot care and foot health. You might have heard stats like “Foot disease is the leading killer of elephants in captivity” or “50% of elephant mortality in captivity is due to foot disease.” While this fact is important, the why of the issue is generally not explained so we decided to go that extra step.
We are going to give you an update on Ramba, tell you a little about what was done to her feet during our 2 ½ week visit and explain a little more about captivity and the impact it has on elephants’ feet. We want to not only be able to tell her story, but allow you to relate it to the many captive elephants that are suffering from the same issues, many much worse, and some ultimately dying from it.
Our initial reason for going to Chile was to check up on Ramba’s health status and get a blood sample to see if her kidneys disease was progressing. We already knew she had kidney issues from her last blood tests, but because of pictures we were sent that showed substantial muscle and weight loss, we were concerned things had progressed to a dangerous point. Upon our arrival, it was soon discovered that her weight loss was mostly affected by her diet, but that wasn’t her only issue. We quickly realized that her feet were in terrible condition as well. Ramba had about 4” of overgrowth on her back nails that were causing her to stand improperly. She was walking pigeon toed while trying to lean back on her feet. Her front feet also had a couple of inches of overgrowth, but did not worry us to the point her back feet did. We decided to start with trying to do footwork instead of going right into blood draw, to slowly reintroduce ourselves to her (we were with her for several weeks, 2 years ago when we moved her from the circus to the safari park) and regain her trust. Blood draw requires more trust and more of a relationship when done respectfully, since we knew we had 2 weeks, we would work on that a little later.
Our first training session was less than stellar and there’s no shame in admitting that. When you work with animals and do things in a respectful and compassionate way, listening to the cues they give you, acknowledging what they are and are not comfortable with, it can be far from perfect. Ramba was very pushy and grabby towards the treat bucket in our first session. There was a lot of her reaching out, mixed with a little cooperation with the behaviors we were asking for but she wasn’t maintaining our requests for any length of time. She would put her foot up, but would only let us touch it for a moment, and then she would put it back down. Not terrible for an elephant that hadn’t had anyone doing footwork on her for several months, but also not going to work with our time limits. To get her healthy, her feet needed a lot of work and two weeks is not a lot of time- we were going to have to figure a few things out- all of us.
We adjusted our technique slightly, chose different areas of the barn, switched to outside, and changed her rewards, all trying to find something to make a difference in how things were going. Several things worked better than others, mutual respect was established, and within a couple of days, things shifted dramatically and we were able to work on her feet for minutes at a time without even a wiggle. Of all the many “treats” we tried (different fruits and veggies, candies etc.) she decided she was a “Fruit Loops” kind of gal. It ended up that she really liked kids cereal. We would use a bucket of cut up fruits and vegetables (as a general reward) and save the fruit loops for a bigger reward for new cooperation on things she didn’t really like (like footwork on her back feet or holding her ear). There were still some bumps along the way. She left the training session a couple of times; just deciding that she was done, and walking out of the barn. When you do positive reinforcement training without closing them in a stall or a chute, you are consciously giving them the option to walk away if they want to- it’s all part of offering them a choice and a say in their lives, it’s the autonomy they have never had. Sometimes they come back after a moment away, other times they are truly done. You always try to end a session on a positive note, but sometimes an elephant will end it for you.
All elephants are different, some like training because they seem to like to show you how smart they, some are people pleasers, some seem to be above it, some just aren’t interested, some don’t seem to care for it at all, and others just do it for the rewards. Ramba clearly comes to her sessions for the cereal, and she is incredibly cooperative with them, but what does happen with Ramba is she gets a little frustrated when she is trying to understand something new (like “backup” which she did eventually grasp) or when she would rather do her left foot over her right. She wouldn’t act out in these situations, she would just vocalize with a low rumble, letting us know she was struggling. In response to what she was telling us, we would switch to something she knew or something easier, and then return to the original task after, and she would do just fine. It only takes a couple of minutes to change our approach and then return to our original task and by doing so, it communicated to Ramba that we are listening to her, this built a tremendous level of trust in a short period of time. She really was truly amazing and so easy to work with and be around. Once we all got on a schedule, with a system that worked, it was lovely from then out. We never asked Ramba to come to the barn for a session, she knew when they were and she would generally show up very punctually for her cereal, if she did not, we let her be an elephant and graze and enjoy the moment.
We were admittedly nervous that we would not be able to work on her back feet. It was evident work had not been done on them, and she was struggling with placing her back feet on the bar (not out of her inability to do so, but seemingly out of not being emotionally comfortable with it). There came a point where we realized we had to change tactics, because with the time we had left, we weren’t going to be able to work on her back feet if she wouldn’t trust the behavior we were asking for. Scott decided to let her keep her feet on the floor and see if she would allow him to touch her feet, to help understand that everything that we were going to do would be gentle and respectful. This quickly evolved as Ramba allowed Scott to do work on her toenails while leaning into the bars of her stall. She actually did great, which was a little bit of a surprise because she wasn’t that keen on having them touched at first. After a few sessions we started asking her to tilt her foot forward, to work on the back area of pad, or to lean her foot back, to get at the front pad. It was not perfect, but it allowed us to be able to get her back feet to a healthy place, allowing her to walk and stand properly. With more time, she could have gotten to a place where she was comfortable with placing her back foot on the bar, but with less than two weeks, we weren’t going to accomplish both training the behavior and trimming her feet- and her health was the priority.
We were on a schedule with Ramba we would not normally ask of an elephant, but our time was limited and we had a lot to accomplish. We worked on her feet, and getting her used to having her ear held, 3 times a day for about 20 to 30 minutes each session. If she was in a funky place, if the schedule didn’t allow, or she was just enjoying the sun, we would skip a session here and there, but for the most part, 3 sessions and “Fruit Loops” became part of her day, Ramba truly was a perfect, unbelievably cooperative and accepting of everything we asked of her.
This is what a training session looks like. It is done through positive reinforcement rewards: cut up fruits, vegetables, and for Ramba, “Fruit Loops”. A target is used (a pole with a tape ball at the end) to let them know when you want specific parts of their body. When we want her to lean the side of her body into the bars, we say “lean in” and place the target where we want her hip to touch. For her feet, we ask for her foot and place the target where we want her to place her foot. After a while, the target isn’t needed, elephants are extremely smart, Ramba knows what you would like from her, and she was very good with offering it to you. There is one person that does the footwork and another person who gives the rewards. The person rewarding the elephant is responsible for the well being of the person working on feet. The person performing the foot trimming has to be able to focus on her feet, so the other person needs to watch the elephant closely to look for signs of discomfort, agitation, or signs that the person at the foot end of the elephant should stop.
First, we’re going to start with a touch of foot basics, so you can understand why nail and pad care is important. Elephants essentially are standing on tippy toe. As you can see in the picture, their bones rest on a large fat pad that is located at the back of their foot and extend into their toenails. When an elephant’s nails grow too long, and stick out past the pad of their foot (the underside of their foot-like the tread of a sneaker) it puts pressure directly on the bones of their foot and makes it so they are bearing their weight on their toes instead of the support of that pad. That’s an average of 8500 lbs. weighing down on their toes.
This is Ramba’s front left foot before starting any footwork on her. The front two toenails are too long, instead of being curved, they stick straight out, which is a problem. They should look more like the toenail on the left side of the picture (which is also too long but has a better shape).
This is the same foot, but it shows the underneath. It is easier to see that the nails extend past her pad, so when her foot touches the ground, the nails are bearing more of the weight. This pad is overgrown, but not as bad as her right foot.
uneven with the rest of the pad. This is actually a shelf that is caused by overgrown pad. This allows for an extreme amount of debris to be collected right behind the nails. The last picture is what the pad of the foot looks like that is being trimmed. Removing the pad does not hurt, it is not live tissue, but you have to you go little by little, looking for signs that that the density of the tissue is changing. If you go too deep you can make the pad more susceptible to punctures, bruising and general discomfort.
These are Ramba’s back feet. This is her back left after her first filing. You can see that the nails are growing outward, there are many layers that cause the nail to stick out versus being flat and going close to straight down. If it doesn’t make sense now, it will when you see the pictures after we were done trimming. This is the excessive growth that was causing her to stand improperly, putting additional strain on improper parts of her body.
Now, we’ll try to show some of the progress, along with some of the issues that we found along the way. As you file, scrape and cut the nails and pad, you uncover the issues that were hiding underneath. Ramba had several cracks and holes in her pads and nails. Only so much can be done at once for them, because healing relies greatly on those areas being cleaned and able to grow out. You can also damage the integrity of the nail by doing too much, and weakening the structure as a whole, so although her nails are not “perfect” we did what was best for her foot health. For her, this healing process can take 6 months to a year for the problem areas to fully grow out- part of the reason that maintenance is so essential. If Ramba had a larger habitat that allowed her to walk further, climb hills, and forage more naturally (using her toes to dig) her feet would need much less work. But due to the small size of her enclosure, natural foot wear does not take place.
This is one of the tools that are used for foot trimming. It has a blade on both edges, and can be used to scrape through layers of pad, trim cuticles, and maneuver through the grooves. Due to the depth of the overgrown pad you can see in the previous pictures, it masked the cavities behind the toenails. We were not able to fully clean them without exposing soft tissue that would be prone to injury. The main thing we did to help initiate the healing process is bevel the cavities to prevent the collection of debris (this picture is part way through our process, more trimming an beveling occurred before we were finished.)
This is the other main tool that is used- simply, it’s a giant file. It’s used to slowly file the nail down. There are other snips that can be used, but some elephants don’t like the pressure it puts on the nail as it cuts or the noise. A file may take a little more time, but it is usually more comfortable for the elephant. There is also another tool we used (a curved knife- another horse tool) but we don’t have pictures. For all of the first 2/3 of the sessions, Scott was working on feet, and I was treating Ramba, so pictures only happened when the session was over. When Carolina started participating, that freed me up to take pictures during training, but by then, the knife wasn’t being used anymore.
The pink area could be associated with old tissue damage or bruising
The dark spot is essentially a soft spot, a hole that was found on her back foot. The overgrowth creates cavities that fester. This area was scraped out.
The bottom of her foot is shiny because it is wet in this picture. There is a very visible hole at the back of her foot- this could be an old bruise or puncture or could be from not being trimmed properly previously. This was only uncovered after removing the overgrown pad covering it. The picture was taken after the hole was cleaned out (it was very hard to see in a picture before being cleaned out). This will have to grow out as part of the healing process- in the meanwhile it will need to be kept cleaned out. The color doesn’t indicate specifics; it is more about texture in regards to the density.
These are some of the shots where you can see the progress of the process. You can also see how most of the issues not evident in the first pictures become evident as the nails and pads are worked on. During the trimming, the nails shorten and become more rounded – as much as possible without weakening the nail, then excess pad is taken down, the cracks are cleaned out and cut as much as possible and if you look closely, you can tell what areas and nails were worked on in that session by the lightening in color of the area.
Left front (the pads were much better than the right foot)
Back Right (nails are still too long and the cuticles haven’t been done- they are rough and scraggly).
These are her nails on our last day there. They are wet from washing the mud off.
You can see that the nails are no longer what the foot is resting on; there is a tiny bit of space under them, now her foot rests on the pads where it belongs.
Ramba was nothing short of a total gem. She would stand for minutes at a time with her foot raised, letting us get done what was needed. She would take her foot down for a moment, shift her weight around, and put her foot back up without being asked. There was no defiance in that action, no wanting to leave, just her taking all of her weight off of her other 3 feet and finding comfort again. She honestly couldn’t have been any easier. She allowed us to do months work of footwork in 2 short weeks. Carolina and Hugo were shown how to keep her nails filed properly and how to keep the pads and crevices cleaned out so they can continue to heal. It’s a process and journey for all of us, including Ramba, and one we hope to continue when she is relocated to Brazil.
We are also including a short clip from one of Ramba’s foot trimming sessions, just to show how cooperative she was. We chose a section that shows her putting her foot down, after Scott had already been trimming for several minutes, just to show how willing her participation is and that she continued very willingly and without being asked. Have we mentioned how perfect she is?