Are elephants frequently ill?
Elephants are basically robust animals, with a very good physical constitution. This applies especially to well-fed and well cared-for zoo elephants who are not exposed to any stress.
Where do elephants get hurt?
Nevertheless, minor and major injuries too do occur, and they need to be treated by the elephant handlers.
An elephant’s skin is very sensitive and wounds only heal very slowly. That is why elephant handlers have to look carefully for small, superficial injuries during the daily washing of the elephants. Wounds should be thoroughly disinfected and treated with a healing salve. Otherwise there is a substantial danger that a minor wound will develop into an abscess.
How are wounds treated?
Clean water, camomile extract and iodine are primarily used for the treatment of abscesses and wounds. A different wound disinfectant can also be used.
Treating abscesses and wounds takes a very long time and the injury mostly leaves a scar on the skin.
Scars like these are observed on elephants whose handlers or trainers carelessly or deliberately ‘guided’ them with too sharp and too pointy elephant hooks. Such scars can mostly be found behind the ears, at the top of the trunk and at the elbows.
Why do elephants fight?
As elephants live in a dynamic social structure, struggles and fights over rank take place continuously. Elephants are not very scrupulous in their choice of methods and weapons for these fights. Amongst the most-used methods and weapons are kicks, whippings with their trunks and using their heads to ram opponents against a wall or to push them into the ditch surrounding an enclosure.
Do elephants bite?
Some circuses engage in the harmful custom of making elephants hold the tail of the elephant in front of them with their trunks whilst making their way from the railway station to the circus tent or whilst entering the arena. For elephants to hold the tail of the elephant in front of them like that is not animal friendly, as the tail is an unprotected part of the body for elephants. They cannot see who is holding it.
When fighting, elephants try to bite their opponent’s tail in the course of a fight.
Does this happen in nature?
This can also happen when Asian working elephants are let out after work to look for food in the nearby jungles with their front feet tied together. Wild elephants roaming free will attack the hobbled working elephants and also try to bite their tails.
Are tail injuries difficult to treat?
Besides the fact that biting the tail, which is an extension of the backbone, is certainly extremely painful, the wound is also difficult to treat. A very great degree of familiarity between the handler and the elephant is required for the injured elephant to show its tail and allow it to be treated.
Elephants have enormously strong tails and it is impossible to hold one if the elephant doesn’t want you to. It will turn to and fro quickly, beat around with its tail or even kick out with its hind legs.
How are wounds treated?
A tail wound is bathed in water with camomile extract. For this the elephant’s injured tail has to be bathed for about 15 minutes in a bucket of water which has been filled with a mixture of water and camomile extract. During this the wound has to be continuously cleaned of old scabs and pieces of skin. This procedure is very painful for the animal. If it trusts its handler, however, it stands more or less calmly and quietly and allows itself to be treated. After soaking, the wound is rubbed with a disinfecting and a skin-reconstituting healing salve.
After that comes the most important bit – rewarding the elephant with its favorite tidbit.
As this treatment can last for weeks, it can become a routine. Treating the wound then just becomes part of the daily routine.
Are there bandages for elephant wounds?
It is practically impossible to completely cover a wound with a bandage. The injured elephant itself, and all the other elephants too, would try to remove this bandage, to eat it or to play with it.
Can a veterinary surgeon help with a cesarean operation?
Operations with a scalpel are practically impossible on elephants. When the veterinary surgeon cuts open an elephant’s skin, he or she must battle the huge physical force of the elephant’s mass. The inner pressure of a mass such as an elephant’s would make the bowels swell up and bulge out of the cut during an operation in the abdomen.
For the same reason it is also hardly possible to perform a cesarean operation during a difficult birth. The elephant mother would never survive.
What other possibilities are there?
A perineal cut, between the anus and the vagina, is only possible under certain circumstances, in order to save an elephant baby that has got stuck, if it is still alive, or, if it is dead, to remove it in order to save the elephant cow’s life.
Stitching a wound arising from such an operation is a further problem. On account of the enormous pressure, stitches are subject to great strain. Normal stitching thread for operations would cut into the skin and not hold the wound together.
How are elephants anaesthetised?
Anaesthetising an elephant is complicated. Even if a veterinary surgeon can administer the general anaesthetic directly with a syringe, getting the dose right is hard.
When a general anaesthetic begins to work and an elephant collapses, it is very important that the heavy animal is put into the right position. The elephant has to be laid down as carefully as possible in order for it to be able to breathe properly. Additionally, the elephant must also be lying in such a way that the veterinary surgeon can work well and efficiently.
Does how elephants are kept make a difference?
All of the above is only possible in direct contact with the elephant or with a crash.
With off-hand management, on the other hand, the veterinary surgeon can only administer a general anaesthetic injection with the use of a blowpipe.
This procedure is linked to a number of risks, namely that:
1. The elephant’s exact weight can only be estimated
2. Nobody knows when exactly and in what position the elephant will fall over and fall asleep
3. The elephant could injure itself even more in falling over
I also do not know how one can thoroughly clean and disinfect an injured elephant’s wound daily in this way of keeping elephants.
What is the alternative to a general anaesthetic?
Another humane possibility is calming an elephant down with a barbiturate. Using this will cause the elephant to doze and then it need only be given a local anaesthetic.
This method was used for Druk’s clitoris operation.
Druk had a tumoural growth on her clitoris which often seriously disturbed her. Drops of urine, dirt and stable dust got stuck in the tumoural growth’s many folds and irritated her skin and she felt very itchy.
The only effective solution was to remove – that is to cut off – this tumoural growth in an operation.
How was the bleeding stopped?
As the clitoris has very intense blood circulation, the two veterinary surgeons had to immediately close down every cut and also immediately sew it up. Thanks to the strong barbiturate and the use of a hanging harness, Druk survived this operation very well, even though it lasted several hours and was coupled with great loss of blood.
How was Druk prepared for the operation?
In order to prevent the elephant from endangering either the elephant handlers, the veterinary surgeons or herself in the case of a potential fall, the veterinary surgeons hung Druk in a hanging harness, which was attached to a T-bar on the ceiling by a pulley block.
So that the harness would not cause disquiet in the patient, we started trying it on several weeks before the operation. In due course this exercise became part of the normal routine. Druk, a careful and slightly suspicious elephant cow, learned that the harness was not dangerous and caused no pain.
Can an elephant bull also be treated in the same way?
All these medical operations are only possible, however, in free and unprotected contact with the elephants. In protected contact a less extensive treating of wounds is surely possible. When he is not in musth, Maxie the bull lets himself be treated without any problems by his trusted handler. In the course of nail problems and problems with the soles of his feet he also reliably bathes his foot in a suitably large tub. (OK, so he allows himself to take a few ‘forbidden’ swigs of the camomile decoction too.)