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How the St. Louis Zoo cares for its 3 quinquagenarian elephants

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St. Louis Zoo
Born in 1971, Pearl came to the St. Louis Zoo in 1973. She celebrated her 50th birthday in 2021.

Earlier today, Donna got some pampering — a pedicure and a bath.

Donna is one of three “golden girls” at the St. Louis Zoo. Along with Pearl and Ellie, the triumvirate of elephants celebrated their 50th birthday last year. They’re beating the actuarial odds too. The median life expectancy for Asian elephant females under human care is 47.5 years.

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Ray Meibaum
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St. Louis Zoo
Katie Pilgram-Kloppe is the zoological manager at the St. Louis Zoo's River's Edge.

“To have three of them that have reached the age of 50 is just remarkable,” explained Katie Pilgram-Kloppe, zoological manager of the River’s Edge at the zoo.

Donna was getting the pedicure because foot care is vital for elephants, especially as they age. Some of the older female elephants at the zoo, Pilgram-Kloppe said, can weigh around 8,000 pounds.

Keeping the three geriatric elephants healthy is important because they play a crucial role among the nine total elephants that live there, especially the younger ones.

“They are there to help kind of teach them what it's like to live in a dominant female society,” Pilgram-Kloppe said.

Basically, the female elephants are in charge — and strong female social groups aren’t uncommon whether in the wild or captivity. That’s because male elephants will sometimes live alone or find smaller bachelor herds.

In the wild, the male elephants “might be venturing from different group to different group of females,” Pilgram-Kloppe said.

Keepers at the St. Louis Zoo also keep elephants healthy with operant conditioning. It’s simple, said Pilgram-Kloppe, in that “it’s used with positive reinforcement.”

"In layman’s terms, if I asked Donna to lift her foot in the air for me, I might give her a verbal cue, saying ‘foot,’ and as she responds by lifting that foot up, then I'm gonna say ‘good,’ and maybe give her a banana afterwards.”

Listen: Caring for the St. Louis Zoo's 'golden girls'

That kind of conditioning is used to create other desired behaviors that mimic elephants’ natural behaviors such as them laying down in sand to give themselves a dust bath or standing on their hind legs to reach leafy tree boughs.

Pilgram-Kloppe has worked at the St. Louis Zoo for about 13 years and became zoological manager in 2017. She knows a lot but says there’s still a lot left for her to learn about elephants.

“I think they can teach us just as much as we can teach them,” she said. “And so I really do cherish the times that I get to interact with them on a one-on-one basis. They are so complex and intelligent animals that I just appreciate being able to help care for them.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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