Dear Straight Dope:
I recently read that elephants cannot jump. Being industrious, a friend and I called the Cincinnati zoo in an attempt to clear this issue up. We talked to the elephant trainer there, and he didn’t know. We also asked about hippos not being able to jump, being not exactly lithe and graceful themselves, and the trainer didn’t know about that either. So, since a trained expert in a nationally recognized institution didn’t know the answer, we figured you would. So whats the scoop? Can an elephant jump?
— Eric and Ken, U of Cincinnati
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
Thanks to Tom Silva, curator of mammals and elephant trainer at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’ve learned way more about elephants than just the answer to this question, and managed to avoid work and miss a conference call from my boss at the same time!
Elephants cannot jump. (And you thought it was just Luc Longley.) It is physiologically impossible for them to do so, because of their weight. I asked how come I see them jump down off platforms, stand on their front legs, and do all kinds of other tricks at the circus, and Tom said that none of these are natural activities for elephants in the wild, and that they will step down from a platform, but will not jump.
Elephants don’t really like to have more than one foot off the ground at once, and Tom sounded as though he “looked down his nose” at other elephant trainers who try to force elephants to perform these unnatural stunts. All elephants in captivity must be taught certain “tricks,” just to facilitate caring for them. They enjoy company, are highly intelligent and enjoy the challenge of learning new activities with positive reinforcement. Zookeepers must have control over these big animals, and so they work with them daily – having them lie down (to make any necessary exams or treatment possible), lift a foot (for the daily pedicures), and follow simple commands. I learned that our Albuquerque elephants get a daily shampoo with Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, followed by an Alpha Keri lotion treatment (insert lotion parlor joke here).
Other facts that have nothing to do with the jumping question, but allowed me to avoid much less interesting work tasks, are that elephants have a matriarchal society, with a lead head cow. This female leads the way to water and feeding grounds, and teaches “elephant manners” (Tom’s words) to the others in the herd. Apparently one of the secondary tragedies of elephant poaching in Africa is that often the head cow will be killed, leaving no one to teach the others how to behave. “They start pushing around rhinos and hippos” says Tom, and have even been known to kill them, without having learned from Big Mom how to live in a diverse, multicultural society.
We went on and talked about polar bears, but that’s outside the scope of this question. If you want to know why the polar bears in the San Francisco Zoo turned green, you’ll just have to post the question.
— SDStaff Jillgat, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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