SOMERSET COUNTY (KDKA) — Many of us have seen the African elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, but the zoo has started a place in Somerset County few people have ever seen.
It’s called the International Conservation Center, or ICC. It’s on more than 700 acres of rolling hills and it’s where five elephants now call home.
Elephant keeper Tom Bakke showed KDKA’s David Highfield how they set up an area for what they call “enrichment” for the elephants.
David was asked to smear a mixture of peanut butter, raisins and sweet feed on tree stumps.
The keepers then overturn some of the stumps to create a play yard with hidden pockets of the peanut butter treat.
When it was time to release the elephants from the barn, they immediately ran out to sniff out the food.
The elephants overturned the huge stumps with a gentle nudge.
“Either you have their clever wheels turning or their dumb wheel is, and it’s our job as good keepers to make sure the clever wheel is always turning,” said Bakke.
With that in mind, Bakke is even teaching one of the elephants here to paint. Yes, paint.
With a brush fashioned specifically for an elephant to hold in its trunk, Thandi gets in touch with her inner Picasso.
Bakke gives her a command to paint, and she swipes the brush against a canvas held by another keeper.
Some of the strokes are gentle, but most are pretty powerful. The finished product is modern art, full of bright colors chosen by Bakke.
Thandi is one of three elephants here rescued from Africa.
A handler in Botswana was injured and died because there was no medical help nearby. Under the law there, had the elephants stayed, they would have been destroyed. So home is now thousands of miles away in Western Pennsylvania.
Bette also lives here now, an elephant from the Philadelphia Zoo, which closed its elephant exhibit.
And then there’s Jackson, who’s quite the stud, responsible for elephant babies across the US. And that’s saying something because successful breeding in zoos is difficult.
But the most serious threat to elephants is in the wilds of Africa.
“I want to say it was 100,000 elephants that were estimated to be killed for their ivory this past year,” said Jody Watkins, elephant manager at the ICC.
In the early ’80s, there were 1.2 million elephants in Africa. Today, there are about 450,000.
Willie Theison, the zoo’s elephant manager, thinks the Conservation Center can play a helpful role.
“Its role will be to help the captive population. I don’t believe we’ll have the opportunity to move them back into the wild,” said Theison.
But he thinks keeping the population alive in zoos is important, too.
“So we take the message to the people, and they can actually see the elephants,” he said.
David got a chance to feed one of the elephants at zoo, a 15-year-old named Victoria who will probably be bred soon.
At the end, she reached out with her trunk to the keepers.
“This is their most important organ. If they lose that trunk, they’re done. So for them to give them to us shows a great deal of trust,” said Theison.
Back at the Conservation Center, handlers say they also develop quite a bond with the elephants.
“They pick up on your mood. How much sleep you got. Whether you’re happy and sad,” said Bakke.
There are plans to expand at the ICC. Next summer, they’ll build another elephant barn. And down the line, they hope to have cheetahs, zebras and rhinos, too.
But right now, the focus is the elephants and giving them a place to thrive.
“They’re a species I think that needs to be taken care of and saved,” Watkins said. “So it’s nice to be a part of that.”
For more information: internationalconservationcenter.org
You May Also Be Interested In These Latest News Stories
[display-posts category=”news” wrapper=”ul” posts_per_page=”4″]
Join The Conversation On The KDKA Facebook Page
Stay Up To Date, Follow KDKA On Twitter