By Don Gworek
One of the “Up Close Tours” offered by Busch Gardens is the Elephant Keeper Experience. It’s a 90-minute visit with the five Asian elephants that live there.
The tour begins with a walk backstage to the Pachyderm Palace. It’s a building where the elephants can find shelter from inclement weather and also get their daily check up and weighing.
It’s here that guests meet some of the elephant trainers and maybe even see them preparing some food. The vegetables and fruits are high quality, purchased from the same sources as your local market.
The trainers are perhaps the biggest fans of the elephants, and the trainer who hosted my tour was proud to show a new element of enrichment that had been added to one of the elephant bedrooms. It’s a large plastic ball with holes, held high above the bedroom on a chain drawn across wall-to-wall. The plastic ball is filled with treats, and the elephants love to hit the ball with their trunk and watch the spray of goodies fall to the ground. It is sort of like an elephant’s piñata.
Guests are shown all areas of the Pachyderm Palace, but it’s the elephant’s private space, so no photos are permitted.
Tour programs can vary day to day, depending on the training goals and activities. The day I was a guest keeper, the elephants were asked to go inside their Palace, and then I was able to hand feed one of them. It was a big thrill to repeatedly pass apples to the elephant’s trunk, and look her in the eye.
The elephant habitat was clear. We did a locking procedure, so each person in the habitat had a key to a different lock on the gate system. The gates could not be operated until each of us had returned and our lock was released.
One of the things you don’t get to see from the public areas in the park’s Nairobi section is the elephant’s swimming pool. To see this pool as a normal guest, you’d need to ride Rhino Rally (at left), or the skyway cable cars (overhead, not in view here).
The trainers and I then prepared enrichment for the elephants, by arranging various toys and food treats. Note the lettuce stuffed into a hold on the upper toy. Bananas and apples were also stuffed through this hole. Some park food items were also placed in the habitat for the elephants to find, including giant pretzels, churros and popcorn! I also placed individual Twizzler red licorice strips along perhaps 40 feet of the retaining wall.
More of the elephants enjoying their treats can be seen in this charming video:
The experience is $199.95 per booking (up to 6 guests) plus tax. Guests must be 10 years of age to participate. For more details, click Here to visit Busch Gardens’ website.