Oregon Zoo changes how, when it feeds elephants

New feeders meant to prompt natural foraging behavior

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PORTLAND — Elephants in the wild don't get breakfast, lunch and dinner on a schedule and now neither to pachyderms at the Oregon Zoo.

The zoo has new feeders that can be set to dump the elephants' food at different times, according to a release from the zoo. The feeders can also be programed to release a full meal or just enough for a snack.

"In Southeast Asian range countries, elephants can spend up to 16 hours a day searching for food," Bob Lee, the zoo's elephant curator, said in a release from the zoo. "They're eating throughout the day, getting lots of exercise — that's the kind of experience we thought about as we designed the new Elephant Lands habitat here at the zoo."

There are only two feeders in the Encounter Habitat so far, said zoo spokesman Hova Najarian, but feeders will be added as new phases of the habitat open. A total of 20 feeders will be spread throughout the six-acre habitat when it's completed in 2015.

The goal is to encourage natural foraging behaviors. The elephants won't know when or where their next meal will drop.

"If they come upon a feeder that hasn't released anything yet, they'll have to move along to the next one, and maybe the next one after that," Lee said. "This will not only keep them moving and exercising throughout the day but it should also provide great mental stimulation."

Feeding the elephants will be more labor-intensive for the keepers, the release said. Staff will have to fill the 20 feeders and program the release times. But Lee said in the release he thinks the work will be worth it.

A recent study accessing elephant welfare in North American zoos found that more exercise and more frequent, unpredictable meals correlated with better body condition, the release said.

Watch the Oregon Zoo's video of elephants checking out their new feeders at www.oregonzoo.org.