Founded as a private society way back in 1831, Dublin Zoo has a long history. In 1840, it opened to the public for the first time – charging a penny for entry each Sunday. At that time, it had 46 mammals and 72 birds for the public to observe.

Today, Dublin Zoo covers 28 hectares of the Phoenix Park and is home to over 400 animals, including a group of Asian elephants.

Kevin Barrington sat down with one of Dublin Zoo’s elephant keepers to find out more about what it takes to look after the calves there.

In conversation with Christina Murphy

I moved here a few years ago from Atlanta, Georgia and started working as an elephant keeper at Dublin Zoo. Ireland has fantastic weather for Asian elephants because they like mild, rainy days. Sometimes you will even see them going swimming more on rainy days.

It’s impossible not to get emotionally attached…

I feel very fortunate that I work with the elephants. They’re very high-maintenance – but in a good way.

Dublin Zoo’s approach to working with elephants

Our philosophy for taking care of them is one of “protective contact”. What we do is we train them to do things, like present their feet to us, so we can give them pedicures.

image of brown haired christina murphy who is elephant keeper at dublin zoo in green tee

Christina Murphy. Images: Dublin Zoo

All of this is done in a protective context, so we don’t go in there with the elephants. We would ask the elephants to stick their leg out a porthole in the wall.

Basically, there are two different styles of management: you go in or you stay out. When you go in there with them, the approach is more based on negative reinforcement. You have a hook and you are more dominant. We don’t believe in that, so we go with the positive approach and we stay outside of their area.

The protective approach means a more stress-free life for the herd, but it also has benefits for us. Elephants are big animals and there’s always a risk that comes with that.

A baby elephant birth at Dublin Zoo!

Getting to know the elephants

All our training and healthcare is done through positive reinforcement. So, we ask for “a behaviour” and we reward it.

Each task is broken into small steps and, as each step is achieved, the elephant is rewarded with a special treat. They are extremely intelligent; they learn very quickly. We get to know each of them and what their favourite foods are. Asoka loves bananas and Anaka loves apples, for example.

They are extremely intelligent; they learn very quickly.

So we had the idea of using a water-gun to spray milk into the calf’s mouth. You have to come up with different creative solutions. But to see the babies grow and gain weight was very rewarding. Particularly so when you don’t interfere with the herd dynamics.

It’s impossible not to get emotionally attached to the animals when you are so involved in their nurture and wellbeing.

Dublin Zoo is one of the many attractions to be found at Dublin’s Phoenix Park. To find out more, visit its website.

Last Updated: 14th August 2022


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