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Hogle Zoo's Dari the elephant going strong at 53
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's a birthday party Saturday at Utah's Hogle Zoo for Dari, the oldest African elephant in captivity in North America.

Dari's turning 53, which is about 90 in human years, but doesn't look a day over 30. And she's still acting like a kid, hamming it up for a throng of visitors Thursday while zoo veterinarian Erika Crook put her through a quick medical checkup ahead of the big bash.

"She doesn't have any medical issues," said Crook, a member of a small veterinary team that administers to the zoo's collection of almost 1,100 animals from 183 species.

Every now and then, the doctor noted, Dari wakes up with "a little hitch in her giddyup" from arthritis, nothing that a little treatment with an anti-inflammatory won't take care of. She was showing none of that stiffness Thursday, lifting her feet so Crook could inspect her pads and nails. With the encouragement of vegetable treats handed out by keeper Gary Steele and colleague Lauren Lecoque's admonishments of "What a good girl," Dari also cooperated when the time came for a dental inspection, opening her mouth wide to let Crook check her back molars.

Her reward this day was a watermelon. To the oohs and aahs of little girls and boys, Dari curled the end of her trunk around the watermelon and put the whole thing into her mouth, breaking it into pieces, half of which fell to the ground, only to be devoured in the next few minutes.

At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, she will be treated to what zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen called "a birthday cake fit for an elephant — protein pellets, fruits and veggies with mashed potato frosting."

Assured that Dari is fit for her feast, Crook made the rounds of the zoo grounds, attending to several other animals getting up in years.

In the zoo hospital, animal keeper Alythea McGee reached into an oversized pillow case and pulled out Igor, a 6½-foot-long Madagascar boa constrictor, age 27. Crook injected antibiotics into Igor's chest muscle, two feet behind his head, used a piece of oldX-ray film to wedge open Igor's mouth and checked to see if an abscess had healed.

It had. And Igor seemed as happy as a boa can be.

"He's really good natured," McGee said. "He could have tried to wrap himself around us, but he didn't. That's why he goes out to schools."

Igor's not the only well-trained resident.

When Crook reached the Rocky Shores exhibit, a handful of fish from keeper James Weinpress made a compliant patient of Big Guy, a blind California sea lion who has dropped 200 pounds (to 650) on a diet imposed by the zoo since his arrival last year. Big Guy sat calmly, swallowing little silver fish, as Crook stroked his back with her right hand and listened to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope.

Mira, a harbor seal, proved even more cooperative when her time came, rolling onto her back with a little encouragement from keeper Ashley Schweinhart so Crook could check her vital signs.

"Through touching, we build trust," the veterinarian said, noting that she gave Big Guy a shot with a "training needle" so he would be less likely to freak out if the time comes when he needs a real shot or to give blood.

Training through touch, soft praise and edible rewards has enabled the zoo to get elephants, giraffes, rhinos and orangutans to submit voluntarily to blood draws, said Crook, who completed her rounds with inspections of Bill, a Siamese crocodile, and Kronk, an Aldabra giant tortoise.

Not a bad job, the zoo vet acknowledged.

"We're the most generalized specialists you'll ever meet," she said. "We go from A to Z, aardvarks to zebras."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg —

Other zoo "seniors"

Besides Dari the African elephant, whose 53rd birthday will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, other older animals will be given special attention by Utah's Hogle Zoo:

Tino, a silver back gorilla, age 40, at 11:30 a.m.

Bill, a Siamese crocodile, age 48, at 1 p.m.

Daphne, a giraffe, age 28, at 1:30 p.m.

Veterinarians' loving care keeps animals healthy as they grow older.
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