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Houston zoo elephants perform daily yoga routines for their health



Teddy practiced his balance before stretching his body in a downward-dog pose during a yoga session last week. Afterward, he rewarded himself with a tasty treat.

The yoga session didn’t feature mats, relaxing music or meditation, though. Instead, Teddy completed his exercises at the Houston Zoo, where trainers guide the 2-year-old elephant in daily yoga exercises to monitor his health.

Kristin Windle, the zoo’s elephants supervisor, said the exercises are just as effective as they were nearly a century ago, when employees started them. She evaluates her 12 Asian elephants’ flexibility, energy and skin condition during their regimens.

“It’s something that we’ve done from Day One of having all these elephants,” Windle told The Washington Post. “They learn these behaviors so that we can monitor their overall health.”

The elephants’ workout routine, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, is similar to those at zoos across the country and abroad. Some experts say a lack of exercise has caused zoo elephants to live shorter lives than those in the wild. Yoga can increase longevity in older adults, and Windle believes it can assist elephants, too.

Windle learned about the Houston Zoo’s exercise program when she started as a volunteer in 2012. On her first day, she developed a bond with Thailand, who is now 57 years old, and admired his calm demeanor interacting with other elephants.


Zoo staff start teaching elephants introductory exercises when the pachyderms turn 4 months old. First, they attach a tennis ball to a broom handle and let the elephants play with it. Later, Windle and other trainers encourage elephants to move the body parts they touch with the stick.

After the elephants perform the moves, such as stretching to one side while raising their leg, trainers hand them a treat. The bananas, whole wheat bread, raisins, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe are a break from their normal diet of hay and bark.

“As soon as they make the connection that, ‘Oh, I touch this and I get food’ … they react pretty well to it,” said Windle, 33.

Over the next few months, the elephants progress to more advanced movements, such as laying down and moving into a downward-dog-like pose with their four feet on the ground and their backs arched. The elephants eventually become accustomed to voice cues and pointing, so trainers stop using the stick.

One 39-year-old elephant, Tess, can even do a handstand.

Windle said the yoga sessions last anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, and they are done at least three times per day. Methai, a 54-year-old elephant with arthritis, gets extra exercises to improve her walking and sleeping. On the rare occasions that elephants don’t want to exercise, they are allowed to walk away.

“You and I couldn’t ask them to do these things,” said Jackie Wallace, the zoo’s communications director. “It’s because the [trainers and elephants] have such an amazing relationship.”


The elephants’ regimes are especially notable given the weight they carry. Thailand and Methai weigh about 11,000 pounds and 7,000 pounds, respectively. The zoo’s youngest elephant, Teddy, surpassed 2,000 pounds this week.

While elephants perform exercises, Windle watches their movements and checks for troubling spots or rashes on their bodies. Asian elephants live about 47 years, Windle said, and she wants to keep them with their families for as long as possible.

“They’re pretty amazing,” she added. “ … It’s pretty awesome to be able to build trust and build relationships with these guys.”

Source: Washington Post

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