Fitness Trackers Boost Zoo Elephant Health : Shots - Health News OK, so they're not using Fitbits. But zoos across America are using software to minutely track the activity, behavior and physiology of captive elephants, and using that data to improve zoo life.
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Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

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Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. Are you into these tracking watches, you know, these things you can wear to monitor your heart rate, your footsteps, even your sleep patterns? But are you also keeping track of the flooring you walk on or how many friends you hang out with? Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in Fresno reports on a community of health-watchers who are tracking all kinds of things.

KERRY KLEIN, BYLINE: Shaunzi used to be a little overweight, but she started exercising and ditched the jelly beans for apples and carrots. She's doing fine now, right around 6,000 pounds. She's an Asian elephant at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

VERNON PRESLEY: We have two savannas which we have our elephants in.

KLEIN: Lead elephant curator Vernon Presley says Shaunzi and the zoo's four other elephants are enrolled in a data-rich fitness tracking program called the Elephant Welfare Initiative. Caretakers keep detailed logs using special software.

PRESLEY: We'll get more concise information on body scoring, of how fit our elephants are, how much time we spend with our elephants.

KLEIN: Presley says the program aims to reduce bone and joint problems, improve reproductive health and ensure better overall welfare for captive elephants.

PRESLEY: We really feel this is what they call a lifestyle change in the elephant community.

KLEIN: More than 40 zoos across North America are taking part.

PRESLEY: We have to now commit even a greater amount of resources into monitoring our elephants' behavior and how well we're taking care of them.

KLEIN: The initiative arose out of a set of scientific studies published recently in the journal PLOS One. Author Cheryl Meehan of the animal welfare consulting group the AWARE Institute says she and her colleagues examined more than 250 elephants in extraordinary detail.

CHERYL MEEHAN: We collected blood and fecal samples, veterinary reports, hours and hours of video. We collected GPS data to measure daily walking distances - and also photographs to assess elephant body condition.

KLEIN: Among their results, the team found that feet and joints were healthier in enclosures with soft soil or sand - that makes sense. More surprisingly, bigger enclosures didn't seem to make for healthier elephants. And one of the most important findings - the more social engagement, the healthier the animals. Meehan says socializing appears to fend off repetitive behaviors like swaying back and forth, which can be a sign of anxiety.

MEEHAN: Elephants that spend more time in larger social groups, particularly those that included young elephants, and elephants that spend less time housed by themselves, these elephants were less likely to engage in these behaviors.

KLEIN: To make these animals healthier and happier, all this data has been brought together into the centerpiece of the Elephant Welfare Initiative, a software system that offers real-time feedback on elephant care. San Diego Zoo elephant curator Greg Vicino says the dashboards are designed to make it easy for keepers to monitor elephant health.

GREG VICINO: They're set up to look kind of like either little speedometers. Or you can make it look, basically, like a bar chart that tells you where you are now, where you stand next to the national average. And you can kind of set targets for yourself.

KLEIN: Elephant-keepers are already learning and adjusting. For instance, the research showed one way to make female elephants healthier is to make them work for food. That challenge is correlated with better reproductive health. So at the Fresno zoo, when it's time for breakfast, Shaunzi confronts a tangled network of chains and hanging objects. She reaches her trunk into a barrel above her head and shakes it until a shower of hay rains down. It's one of many new strategies helping ensure that captive elephants are healthy elephants.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Klein in Fresno.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "THE ILLUSION")

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