Progressive Elephant and Rhinoceros Management: A Conversation with Guy Lichty, Curator of Mammals a

The North Carolina Zoo is the nation’s largest walkthrough zoo and often thought of as one of the best zoos in the world. It is renowned for its expansive habitats taking full advantage of the landscape of North Carolina. The North Carolina Zoo is especially renowned for its excellent African elephant program and boasts arguably the best manmade habitat for the species ever built. Crucial to the development of this program is Guy Lichty, Curator of Mammals at the North Carolina Zoo and elephant specialist. Here is his story.

@ Guy Lichty

Lichty began his career as a zookeeper at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo at Colorado Springs. “I had a biology degree but no career plans with it,” he recalled. “I went out to Colorado Springs as a friend had property near Pikes Peak. My money ran out and it was time to find a job. I found out the zoo was affiliated with a hotel I had worked at and got the job since few people had a biology degree back in those days. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was a great place to start as they had quite a variety of animals and a lot going on. We didn’t know as much as we do now about welfare and husbandry so looking back some of the practices weren’t the best but the hands on animal experience was valuable.” In fact, he was almost killed by two polar bears there in 1979. “I don’t know why I’m still living,” Lichty looked back.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

After several years at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Lichty moved out west to the San Diego Zoo. “I started in the children’s zoo and then expanded into the mammal department before being promoted to lead keeper in 1988,” he said. “I worked with everything but gravitated to elephants and hoofstock. When I got promoted, those were the animals I was most responsible for. I had been anxious to get back into a supervisory role as I had been one my last two years in Cheyenne Mountain. They finally created more lead keeper positions and I felt I had a lot more influence improving quality, husbandry and raising the bar. We raised the level of animal care in a lot of aspects of collection management. I really enjoyed working there. We had quite the variety of species and the climate was great. You could keep animals out all year, which made things easy.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Guy Lichty was at the San Diego Zoo during a time of transition. The zoo was in the midst of a large campaign to transform large sections from the zoo from generic taxidermic regions to immersive bioclimatic habitats. “In the mid 1980s, I saw the great immersive habitats done at the Oregon and Woodland Park Zoos and came back to San Diego thinking we’re being passed by,” Lichty remembered. “Many exhibits looked exactly the same with all these old gunite walls and decomposed granite. Once we started building new exhibits, paying attention to what other people were doing and building teams around new areas, the zoo became great. They infused a lot of new pride and launched the zoo into becoming a better place.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

However, Lichty knew he was only a “medium-sized fish at a large pond” at the San Diego Zoo and would have trouble getting a more significant role. “I was very involved in the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) at the San Diego Zoo,” he stated. “I resurrected the newsletter and kept publishing it regularly. I was president of the local chapter for a few years and the co-chair of the 25th anniversary conference of the AAZK. I met a lot of people from these conferences, including a lot of people from the North Carolina Zoo who were showing these beautiful naturalistic habitats. They were starting to advertise for curatorial positions at the zoo as they were about to open North America. I decided it was time to move my career to a place where I could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.” In 1993, Lichty started his long tenure at the North Carolina Zoo.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“When I first came here, I was the animal husbandry manager,” Lichty recalled. “I was going to be the one manager responsible for all the supervisors and keepers. The three new curators that were hired were scientific advisors who didn’t really manage a staff. That sounded good in theory but when put into practice it was overwhelming. There was so much for me to organize while the curators were used to getting things done and often didn’t go through me. That didn’t work so we reorganized and I became one of two curators of mammals.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

When Guy Lichty started at the North Carolina Zoo, construction was well underway on North America, a 200 acre expansion representing all the biomes of the continent. “One thing that was frustrating for animal people was back then this zoo had a culture that was unique,” he explained. “Many of the people who worked here had not been exposed to other zoos and, as a result, departments were on equal ground. The animal department had to compete with horticulture and design departments, pitting aesthetics against animal welfare. The zoo is a state government zoo so a lot of politics was involved. Initially, they pretty much wanted it to be a citizen’s zoo that created jobs for people from North Carolina. They were for the most part North Carolinians and pretty naïve about many things in the zoo world. They would balk at me for advertising out of state for keeper positions. When we were opening North America, many inexperienced people hoped they would get these zookeeper positions but they didn’t have experience working with those animals. We needed people who had experience with bears, sea lions, etc but they didn’t understand that. We had to convince the powers that be that you can’t just promote people who have no experience with these animals and we needed an infusion of experience.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“Also, a lot of senior staff personalities were strong at that time,” Lichty continued. “ A lot of the employees thought their piece of the pie was the most important thing going on. Often animal welfare had to compete with plant welfare and aesthetics, although animals should come first. The wellbeing of the animals is more important than whether or not the public sees a wall. We’d have to fight tooth and nail for animal welfare. This culture changed as those of us from other zoos earned our credibility and encouraged the others to go to other places, attend conferences and see what other zoos are doing. They finally opened their minds to what we were trying to convince them of. Aesthetics started to take the back seat more and it become a much more cooperative team atmosphere. When we did Watani Grasslands, it was much more collaborative.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

Despite this, North America turned out to be a great success. “This zoo was already very progressive in the way it was thinking utilizing its resources,” Lichty remarked. “The whole concept of this zoo was way out ahead and there was a strong desire to be a leader in this field.” The expansion doubled the size of the zoo and brought in popular animals such as polar bears, sea lions, bison, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, red wolves, river otters, cougars and alligators. Much like the African section that opened before it, the habitats were enormous and gave the animals plenty of freedom to roam.

@ North Carolina Zoo

A decade later, Lichty and the rest of the North Carolina Zoo began work on the Watani Grasslands, an ambitious project expanding the zoo’s elephant and rhino programs. “Watani Grasslands blossomed out of us recognizing African elephant and white rhino management was evolving,” he explained. “We were learning these species are much more successful when living in multigenerational herds. Just having pairs of elephants or rhinos wasn’t getting them where they needed to go. We knew if we were going to be a major player with those animals, we’d need to create multigenerational herds.” The decision was made to integrate white rhinos in the North Carolina Zoo’s 37-acre African Plains (home to a wide variety of African antelope and birds), double the size of the African elephant habitat and build much larger indoor spaces for them.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“We decided we could put the rhinos in with the antelope if we rhino proofed the savanna,” Lichty said. “We built a new elephant barn and dedicated the old elephant/rhino barn to rhinos. To make the savanna rhino proof, we put up a post and cable fence in front of the chain link. We had to modify gates and passageways to accommodate rhinos. We had to keep the rhinos out of the antelope heated shelters. We also did a lot more with the African Plains in terms of aesthetics. We created these termite mounds that serve as feeder stations for the antelope and built wallows to congregate rhinos in an easy to see area. We created a chute from the rhino barn that works very well and added a boma for animal introductions and conditioning.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

This upgrade dramatically improved the lives of the zoo’s white rhinoceros herd. “They now have 37 acres instead of 3.5,” Guy Lichty commented. “They have a huge and small pond to utlize, plenty of shade and lots of animals to coexist with. We were able to expand the herd to a more natural number. White rhinos are gregarious animals so it was beneficial to have a larger number of rhinos for them to socialize with. They have plenty of choices now- they can graze, be with each other, roll in the mud, find shade, drink water or be in isolation. There’s plenty to do and plenty to meet their needs.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

White rhinos are very receptive to behavioral training and operant conditioning. “I don’t know if I would say rhinos are smart but they can be trained behaviors very easily,” Lichty commented. “We can do rectal ultrasound with them and a restraint device, leaving the door open for them to leave any time they want. We can also draw blood from them easily. They’re very easy going and laid back. It’s almost as if they’re big cows. Their behavior is conducive to trust built relationships so it’s easy to introduce something simple to them and make it worth their while.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

Putting the white rhinos in with the antelope required a lot of thought and consideration. “We have to select the right species,” Lichty said. “The rhinos typically aren’t going to go after the antelope and vice versa- that’s a hard-wired thing. It might be different with a juvenile rhino who might naively want to play around with a territorial male antelope but typically white rhinos are not a problem with them. You have to choose your social groupings of antelope wisely as some antelope can interbreed when they’re together. We had problems with waterbuck and lechwe in the past because they’re so similar but now all our bachelor waterbuck are castrated. We have to keep an eye out for sitatunga and bongo as they’re quite similar. We need to make sure the male bongo has enough of a harem to keep him busy. Some antelope are on the aggressive side. That’s why I don’t have addax or sable in there- they’re really territorial.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

In the case of the elephants, they built a completely new barn designed for state-of-the-art husbandry and management. “We had to build a new barn with protected contact in mind (meaning animals and their care staff never occupy the same space),” Guy Lichty explained. “We transitioned to protected contact in 1994 but didn’t have a barn set up for it until 2008. In the old barn, you only needed the front part of the stall to be open while now you can access the elephants from multiple sides. You needed that flexibility and access as you weren’t chaining them. Instead of a linear design, the building is shaped like a square donut where keepers have access to all the areas outside the elephants’ stalls. If you’re not doing it hands on you need lots of gates, doors and works around to manage shifting, introduction and social opportunities.” Protected contact worked in the old barn mainly because the elephants who had been there before “figured out it was the same requests and did it voluntarily.” This new barn allowed new elephants to also learn the system."

@ Scott Richardson

The massive outdoor habitat for African elephants was made much more enriching and dynamic. “We added an artificial scratching tree to the original elephant habitat, which lets the elephants scratch and manage their own skin care,” Lichty said. “There are holes in the tree for browse. We built a pool in the new habitat they can completely submerge in. We made sure they had more of the same things they already had- places to scratch, shade, lots of grass, mud wallows and pools- in the enlarged habitat. A lot went not just into keeping the animals occupied but also maintaining the turf which is better on their feet and keeps them busy grazing. The elephants move around the habitat all the time from place to place so they’re getting a lot of exercise. They are constantly on the move and active.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo began to use a progressive approach to elephant management, introduced by the zoo’s new elephant manager. “What we’re doing now is a lot more about behavior, which is the next phase of animal management in zoos, not just for elephants,” he elaborated. “I have a very talented elephant manager who is really a behaviorist in her approach to things. We’re all about behavior. We can do so much with the elephants in terms of setting up social situations and assessing how the changes we are making in their lives are working. For example, typical elephant programs have set routines but what we’ve done is change it up so they have no idea what’s going to happen that day. My eliminating the ‘boot camp’ routine of daily baths, pedicures and training, they have much more time to actually be elephants. We watch their behavior, see what they need and manage them according to that.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“We manage the elephants in a way that prevents problems but we don’t make it a routine,” Lichty said. “The elephants have a lot of variety and we allow them to stay outside overnight, maximizing their opportunities especially socially.” The North Carolina Zoo has a strong commitment to the husbandry of elephants in human care. “We want to expand beyond what we’re doing and be able to take elephants from other places,” he remarked. “Zoos are at a crossroads with elephants. We have a lot of aging females who are no longer reproductive so we count on the zoos who have had success breeding African elephants. We’ve really elevated their care, especially behaviorally and are finally changing the culture for those who embraced more restricted free contact methods.”

@ Scott Richardson

“All the new elephant exhibits that have opened in the last decade demonstrate a positive outlook, which is what we need to keep this going,” he continued. “There’s going to have to be a greater emphasis on getting elephants into them. As long as we have poaching in elephant range countries, we’re going to need to have these facilities as a safeguard. But we need to demonstrate we’re doing right by the elephants we have in zoos and are actually helping save the species. The more choice and control you give to the elephants, the better. You need to not only to understand elephant behaviors but hire and develop staff who have the skills to train, desensitize and condition elephants to be well-adjusted so that change isn’t this huge ordeal. You need to have your elephants ready and confident to handle novel situations. This requires a trust-based approach to operant conditioning.”

@ Scott Richardson

“You have to understand the vast majority of elephants in American zoos were mismanaged for decades,” Lichty candidly said. “Not knowing any better, zoos and circuses put them into social situations that didn’t meet their needs. They were yanked away from their family groups and everything that elephants learn growing up and were put in unnatural situations. We’re lucky some of our elephants have bred but, when you think of it in this context, it wouldn’t be the expectation. The fact that some of these elephants came out adjusted at all was a miracle. Elephant care has finally come up to the standard it needs to be. The elephants imported from Swaziland or born in family groups associated with those elephants are much better adjusted and less aggressive than the elephants from the days of free contact. They’ll teach each other to be elephants and we have an opportunity to do better with them.”

@ Scott Richardson

The welfare of African elephants is taken very seriously at the North Carolina Zoo. “We care so much about these elephants,” Lichty remarked. “Our elephant program is not based in routine or tradition but on what behaviors elephants are communicating to us. We’re getting really good at that, but it’s definitely a learning curve for staff. Animal managers need to understand behavior and instill in their staff this approach to managing animals, not just elephants. We are becoming less and less traditional in the way we care for elephants.” A few zoos that Lichty felt had similar philosophies to elephant management as the North Carolina Zoo are the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, the Lowry Park Zoo, Zoo Miami, Busch Gardens and the Reid Park Zoo.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“We try to recognize all the influences and stimuli that affect an elephant’s behavior,” Guy Lichty continued. “It’s not just training and enrichment but our daily routines, operating hours, new and familiar faces and everything we do or don’t do around the animals. We’re expanding what we already manage our elephants to all the other animals. If you base animal welfare on animal behavior, you see everything in the context of how it impacts an animal’s behavior. We’re using our research department to evaluate every animal, set up goals for individual animals well being, implement those plans and evaluate them to see how we did. It’s a science- and evidence-based approach. We factor in everything from hours of operation to exhibit design to training and enrichment. We’re letting the animals tell us what they need through their behaviors. If an animal shows us undesirable behaviors, they’re trying to tell us something.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

In addition to being responsible of the African elephants, white rhinos and antelope in Africa, Guy Lichty also manages the grizzly and black bears, red wolves, bison and elk in North America. “Bears and wolves can be harder to keep stimulated but we do a good job at that,” he said. “Many of them were confiscated and rescued. Our grizzlies are both nuisance bears who would have been euthanized if we didn’t provide homes for them. Our black bears were rescued from roadside zoos. These animals come from histories which are sometimes hard to overcome but, because our animal care approach and facilities are so good we can decrease the behavior problems they have developed.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo is home to 19 red wolves, a critically endangered animal native to North Carolina. “Based on the Red Wolf Taxon Advisory Group guidelines, we have a hands off approach with our wolves because most of the wolves are considered candidates for release into the wild," Lichty remarked. "Little interaction goes on and the wolves don’t have huge needs not provided by their habitats.” The North Carolina Zoo is a leader in the conservation of this species and assisting them in making a comeback.

@ North Carolina Zoo

The 11-acre North American Prairie is home to large herds of bison and elk. “The bison and elk have natural and fulfilling social situations,” Lichty remarked. “They have so much grass, shade and space. Their behavior tells us their needs are being met. Hoofstock needs tend to be met pretty easily so the keepers who take care of the bison and elk tend to focus more on the bears. The bison and elk are easy enough to gate and bring on and off exhibit so they don’t need as much additional operant conditioning. The focus is on the bears and training them for medical procedures so we minimize the need to immobilize them.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo is on the cusps of a massive expansion adding the continents of Australia, Asia and possibly South America to the zoo. “Australia is scheduled to open in 2020 and the goal is to have Asia opened in 2024,” Lichty said. “For Asia, we’re focusing on tigers and possibly orangutans, siamangs, langurs, Komodo dragons, gibbons and an assortment of birds. We want to start out with the core representation and build from there. For Australia we’re going to have a large mob of red or gray kangaroos and hopefully cassowaries and tree kangaroos.” Additionally the North Carolina Zoo is planning on tearing down the former African Pavilion and hoping to build a conservation station on that location. The zoo is exploring the possibility using its massive space to have off exhibit breeding centers for tigers, red wolves and even African and Asian elephants.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“We’re a relatively progressive zoo,” concluded Guy Lichty. “At this point we have a new director, Pat Simmons, who is very energetic and a very good leader. There’s a lot of new blood and teamwork- very forward thinking people. Our core values are conservation, education, animal welfare and guest experience. Everything is centered around those four pillars. All the change that’s happening is making it a really exciting time. I have a renewed spirit .”

@ North Carolina Zoo

#NorthCarolinaZoo #CheyenneMountainZoo #SanDiegoZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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