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A New Name And New Mission For San Diego Zoo

Swazi, one of the African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, eyes a visitor on Feb. 26, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
Swazi, one of the African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, eyes a visitor on Feb. 26, 2021.

Two San Diego Zoo Safari Park African elephants, Swazi and QiNisa, eagerly reached out their trunks to get a snack from lead keeper Lauren Coates.

“Their skin’s super thick and strong, but it’s really wrinkly,” Coates said as she stroked their trunks. “It’s kind of like a tire like it has some give to it even though you can tell its super strong and it super wrinkly and they have hair all over their body. You can see it here on the trunk, but it’s really thick like wires.”

A New Name And New Mission For San Diego Zoo
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

Coates reached into a bucket full of cut-up sweet potatoes, cucumbers and food pellets. She handed some to both elephants.

The elephants get treats a couple of times a day — it's part of their training.

“And they should respond to their names and if they come over they get reinforcement,” Coates said. “And they walk away when we’re done.”

Coates says the elephants have choice and control over what they do in the yard. The treats are a way to reinforce positive behaviors.

“In the beginning, it's just getting them to know their names,” Coates said. “To come to use when they’re called and then we can move into more complicated behaviors like blood collections and milk collections.”

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The two moms in this nine elephant herd have been part of a more than a year-long study of elephant milk. Keepers regularly take samples from lactating moms and analyze the milk’s composition.

Researchers are trying to measure how elephant milk changes over time to help orphan elephants in Kenya at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.

Workers need to make an age-appropriate formula that can differentiate life and death for elephant calves. That connection makes the work in San Diego even more important for both researchers and keepers.

Video: A New Name And New Mission For San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo Global is changing its name to San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance to reflect its new mission.

“The work that they do every day is helping animals and plants in the wild,” said Nadine Lamberski, the San Diego Zoo’s chief conservation officer.

The new name reflects a holistic approach to conservation, according to Lamberski.

“It is about wildlife,” Lamberski said. “But it’s also about people. And it’s also, again, about the ecosystem that we share. And it’s that balance of nature that becomes so important in our work.”

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The concept hit home recently when the coronavirus infected the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s gorilla troop.

It was the first-ever case of human to gorilla transmission.

Several members were infected and the silverback, the troop’s oldest male, got monoclonal antibody therapy.

All have recovered, but there was a lesson there.

“This is an infection that originated from animals and then went into people and then unfortunately transmitted it back to animals,” Lamberski said. “But it goes beyond just that. We had a meeting just the other day with our colleagues that work with great apes in the wild and we talked about how do we protect wild gorillas. What do we have to do to make sure they don’t suffer consequences because of this virus.”

COVID-19, in fact, helped push the zoo to change the way it does business around the world.

RELATED: San Diego Zoo Gorillas Contract COVID-19; First Known Transmission In Great Apes

San Diego Zoo CEO and President Paul Beribault said the zoo was making incremental movement in this direction anyway, but the pandemic accelerated the change.

“Through this past year, we’ve all seen how our own human health is tied to the health of wildlife, it ties to the health of the entire planet and so in so many ways, COVID was the catalyst that said, 'We have to do this now,” Beribault said.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance brings research skills to the table. But that is not enough for a complete solution that engages communities, governments, and other wildlife organizations outside of San Diego.

“For us to have a greater impact in conservation,” Beribault said, “we need to use this moment to energize everybody. All of our partners. All of our donors. All of our supporters here in San Diego to be a part of this solution.”

The new focus doesn’t mean the two parks will be ignored.

Beribault said those parks must thrive for the organization to stay financially healthy.