Captive Elephant Behavior

In 2016, I interned at the NC Zoo to investigate how management techniques and environmental covariates impact captive elephant behavior. While recent work has assessed how environmental and managerial changes influence elephant welfare across multiple zoos, few studies have assessed the effects of management changes within a population. In conjunction with the NC Zoo, I assessed how management changes related to social structure and diet affect the behavior of a group of zoo elephants over a 23-month period while also considering underlying factors such as time of day, hormonal cycle, and individual differences. Individual behaviors were recorded using two- minute scan samples during 60-minute sessions. Generalized linear mixed models were used to analyze behavioral changes across several study variables. Our conclusions show that increasing browse can improve opportunities for foraging throughout the day but may not be sufficient to reduce repetitive behaviors. In addition, we found that increasing group size and integration of bulls with cows can led to


Csar, the oldest bull elephant at the NC Zoo


greater social interaction in African elephants. We also demonstrated that it is important to consider other factors that aren’t affected by management, such as time of day, hormonal cycle, and individual variation when considering elephant behavior.

​I presented my preliminary results to the zoo and at the NC State University Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in 2017, and continued working with the zoo the past three years to write a manuscript currently in review in the journal Animals (MDPI). Our findings have led to changes in how the NC Zoo manages their elephants to better promote optimal welfare for these animals. I was humbled that the knowledge I provided could help animals in a meaningful way, and wanted to continue helping animals throughout my career.

Tonga, Batir, and Nekhunda, three of the NC Zoo's cows.