It has been one year since Artie joined our herd at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, becoming the 29th resident and The Sanctuary’s first permanent African bull elephant.
To commemorate Artie’s anniversary, Care Staff went all out in preparing Artie's habitat for a festive celebration, featuring an elaborate spread of vegan pumpkin cake adorned with a variety of produce and grain, lots of hay, bamboo, cantaloupes, and even a donated Christmas tree! Upon first sight, Artie quickly made his way over to begin the festivities, promptly munching on a bamboo shoot. Staff witnessed Artie as he devoured every bite of the sweet cantaloupe and pumpkin cake until nothing was left.
Artie, a male African savanna elephant born in the wilds of Zimbabwe in 1983, was orphaned due to a government-sponsored culling before the age of one. Captured and brought to the United States in 1984, Artie spent over twenty years in performance and exhibition. In October 2007, he was transferred to the North Carolina Zoo to join their multigenerational herd. Recognizing his needs as an aging bull, the North Carolina Zoo made the decision to transfer the now 41-year-old Artie to The Sanctuary for lifetime care and continued socialization.
Since Artie's arrival, he has shown many signs of comfort with his new home, quickly acclimating to his surroundings and to Care Staff. He chooses to spend his time engaging in social activities, foraging native plants, and pushing down hardwoods and pines. “Knocking down and eating trees is a natural behavior that we often observe our elephants doing,” says Kristy Eaker, The Sanctuary's Senior Manager of Elephant Care. While these opportunities to explore vast acreage, exhibit natural elephant behaviors, and meet new companions are always top priorities for the staff, they come with their own set of challenges.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was founded in 1995 to address the needs of female Asian and African elephants. However, in response to the growing population of male elephants in human care, The Sanctuary has committed to constructing facilities capable of accommodating any elephant in need.
Artie, now the largest and heaviest elephant at The Sanctuary, has presented Staff with numerous learning opportunities. His presence has highlighted the distinct challenges involved in caring for African bull elephants and the larger set of needs they require. "Some of the challenges we face when managing bulls are simply due to their size," says Eaker. "Artie stands at 11 feet tall, and we had to make several modifications to the facilities to accommodate his height. This included expanding the height of his Protected Contact training walls and Staff learning to perform care treatments on a ladder so we could effectively access him."
Further modifications have involved major projects like adding an additional 60 acres to Artie's current habitat. This expansion not only provides him with the opportunity to roam greater distances — a behavior typical for males, especially during musth — but also connects his habitat to the elephants residing at Asia Habitat, namely Nosey and Edie. Artie frequently chooses to visit his African female counterparts, and both Nosey and Edie reciprocate the social opportunity through protected barriers. In case you missed a more recent encounter between Artie and Edie, you can view that here. In addition to this, Artie has had many successful interactions with Tange, Sukari, and Flora over fence lines. Staff are currently planning ways to increase those opportunities as we move into the spring season.
Artie also brings another learning opportunity that is unique to male elephants: musth. Last spring, Artie went through his first musth cycle at The Sanctuary, a natural occurrence seen in healthy adult bull elephants. Musth is characterized by the secretion of a hormone-rich substance called temporin and involves a rise in reproductive hormones, generally lasting around two to three months. This cycle can cause the bull to feel energetic, restless, and show signs of agitation. Staff have noted that Artie’s senses seem to be more heightened, and though he is alert to louder sounds, he generally stays calm throughout and continues to actively participate in his Protected Contact training and individualized health care.
Other normal signs of musth that Staff have witnessed from Artie include “dramatic” trunk draping, in which he wraps his trunk along his face, tusks, and head, eye scratching, head pressing and shaking, and walking with his head held high. Madeline McWhorter, Lead Caregiver at Africa Barn, explains how well Artie interacts with his Care Staff during this period: “The thing I admire most about Artie is how patient and trusting he is — readily cooperating and voluntarily participating in all the treatments and veterinary diagnostics we need to keep him healthy.”
In response to inquiries about breeding now that The Sanctuary is home to both male and female elephants, Janice Zeitlin, The Sanctuary's CEO, states, "The Sanctuary's primary focus is to provide a home and individualized care for aging elephants and does not support breeding of the elephants under its care. The Sanctuary’s female elephant residents are no longer cycling and are considered non-fertile.” As for male elephants, “Their placement at The Sanctuary follows decisions made by their owners, who have determined that these individuals do not align with breeding situations."
While there are ongoing efforts to facilitate even more socialization between Artie and the other African females, The Sanctuary has implemented numerous precautions to ensure the safety of all involved.
Artie currently resides temporarily at the Elephant Health Care Center while a permanent barn is under construction. Plans are underway for Tonka, the largest African male in North America, to join The Sanctuary from Zoo Knoxville later this year. The two new bull barns, each spanning 3,000 square feet, feature heated stalls and robust steel fencing fit for strong bulls.
Thanks to the many generous donors and supporters, The Elephant Sanctuary successfully kicked off the Building for Bulls campaign in 2023. This funding initiative will continue until Tonka arrives and the new barns are fully outfitted, ensuring the large, magnificent bulls have a permanent home. You can read more about these plans here.
The Sanctuary looks forward to many more years of caring for Artie, who is known for his calm disposition and companionship. “I love the loud chortle noises Artie makes,” says McWhorter. “Especially when Care Staff are speaking around him, Artie will start ‘talking’ back – he definitely dominates the conversation!”