COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - In the last six months, Riverbanks Zoo has lost two of its four beloved female African elephants.
What many may not know is the elephants that have been in Riverbanks care have been there for many years and all of them are nearly at or past the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's (AZA) median life expectancy of 38.4 years old.
But keepers tell us it's why their standard of care is all-the-more critical, and caring for these incredible creatures truly comes day-by-day.
"We know that our herd is aging, and you kind of try to prepare yourself for that fact that this is going to happen," Riverbanks Zoo elephant manager Andrea Mueller said.
But for Mueller and her keepers, the question is when.
"Of course you don't want to think about it in that perspective, but Robin is 47 years-old, so it's always in the back of your mind that this could happen again, it could happen soon or years down the road," Mueller said.
But Mueller says that's why every day 47-year-old Robin and 36-year-old Belle are cared for constantly. We got to see keepers perform a weekly blood check on Robin.
"We like to check their health assessment, so we can check anything from hormone levels to white blood cell counts, to kidney values, just to make sure that they are healthy," Mueller said.
Caring for aging female African Elephants is not uncommon at AZA zoos around the country.
"The population is heavily skewed toward old and aging individuals, while there is a small breeding population, most of the breeding age elephants are housed in institutions that are very, very large and able to hold multiple animals," Riverbanks Zoo's Curator of Mammals John Davis said.
Riverbanks Zoo can care for up to four African Elephants. However, while zoo officials say they have been caring for older female elephants for a long time, there are none available right now to move to Riverbanks and likely won't be for years.
"We're looking at what's next," Davis said. "Architects have been contacted and we're going to look at how we can contribute in the managed population and continue to manage elephants, but it may be a different way."
That could at some point mean caring for male elephants which require more specific care than females, but Riverbanks says it's working closely with the AZA species survival plan on how best to move forward. For now, keepers say moving forward means continuing to provide the best care for Robin and Belle.
"The animals are here, they need our care, they need us to be focused, we need to look after them," Mueller said. "So if you approach it like that you're going to be more successful."
Keepers add they believe Robin and Belle are still grieving the loss of their counterparts. While staff says they know they did everything they could for both elephants before they passed, they continue to mourn the loss of Penny and Petunia.
For the first time ever they allowed us to see the site where Penny and Petunia are buried, and keepers have planted wild flowers and Petunias respectively, to mark their graves.
Keepers say the flowers at the grave site are a way to continue care for the elephants, even after they pass, because of the immense love they have for them.
They add that love will continue no matter what comes next for the herd at Riverbanks.