Whether elephants catch a cold, what operative matriarchy does to young men, and why Ghandi was once a “terrorist” – it is astonishing what you can learn when you are on local safari in the Zoo in Heidelberg. Animal keepers Tobias Kremer and Stefan Geretschläger run a young bulls’ living community – the only one of its kind in Germany.
No, there is no docusoap yet about the young bulls sharing an enclosure in the Heidelberg Zoo. Strange, isn’t it? Even though usually no TV station misses the opportunity to regularly film the youth of the animal kingdom – since this always does the trick. “Of course,” Tobias Kremer says, “but they usually don’t show the animal keeper while he is digging around in a blocked drain.”
His and his colleague’s educational style could be described as decidedly elephant-empathetic. Their living community for young bulls, which was founded in 2010 and at the moment consists of four elephants, has been established according to latest animal-pedagogical knowledge.
The concern that working with animals of such enormous elephantine power could prove horribly dangerous is astonishingly quickly dissipated: There is no direct contact between elephant and animal keeper. How can that be? A fascinating multi-function wall ensures the keepers’ safety in cases of clumsiness or sudden anger eruptions of the enormous animals. Yet it is not merely a safety barrier. The two animal attendants came up with the idea of this device themselves and they are convinced: “There is no better training wall,” since they can open up all sorts of doors with it for the young bulls Gandhi, Ludwig, Yadanar and Tarak. The elephants then show their trunks, feet or ears and thus playfully train for medical controls.
A metalworking manufacturer in Mannheim constructed the bulky device: 15 tons impact load should do the trick and somewhat calm a bull when the ten-year-old boss comes round the corner: Gandhi, 2.43 meters shoulder height, impressive trunk. With which he can even play the blues-harp – like a hard rocker, that is. A guy for whose pedicure a file is not used but instead a grinding machine. “That is gentler.” Yes, indeed!
Confronted with the sensitive undertaking of painting the ten-year-old bull capitulates. “He would simply eat the brush,” Stefan Geretschläger says. Unlike Tarak, whose abstract expressionist studies can be admired here and there in the elephant house. In addition to the artistic programme, there is an abundance of activity space at the elephants’ disposal. “You have to imagine that elephants out in the wild are busy searching food for 16 to 17 hours a day.”
Ghandi used to be a Danish hooligan with slightly terrorist tendencies. Now he is a true pal.
This is why hay and straw are not just lovelessly thrown onto the floor but hanging in bins from the ceiling so that the pachyderm-gourmets have something to tear at. This means that the term “elephant enclosure” is only a very insufficient description of what the gang of young bulls is being offered. It is in fact a near-nature recreational park endowed with swimming pool (“swimming makes them tired”) and sand basin (“to throw over the back”) and a gigantic strangler fig tree (“to rub against”).
The indoor area as well as the inestimably vast outdoor terrain were created to share a close resemblance to a Southeast Asian river landscape where Asian elephants are at home. This has no longer anything to do with the dungeons surrounded by trenches one might recollect from one’s own zoo excursions in childhood days. Dull back and forth swinging for sheer life-weariness is not what you will see here in this Garden of Eden.