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Size Matters - Bed Size That Is!
Staff at Howletts Wild Animal Park were concerned because Jums had outgrown his bedroom, the big fella didn’t complain, but the lack of space made it difficult for him to lie down with any degree of comfort.
By: Louise Tomlin
Ron Kent, the Maintenance Project Manager explained, “We’ve had a new place for Jums to sleep on the “to do” list for a while, but it’s been a question of planning and budgets. It’s recommended that large elephants like Jums need an area of at least 50 square meters for a bedroom or stall. We decided that this summer, whilst he spent his nights outside - the whole herd do this from April to September - we would give him a new bedroom. This project is really important to us all here, not just Jums. We all take our animals well being very seriously and it’s going to be a fantastic morale boost to complete this project on time and for us to know our big bull elephant is in the right sized accommodation.”
The idea was to make two existing stalls into a single large one, so he would have more than enough room to lie down and get a good night’s sleep. To make this happen Ron contacted Jacksons Fencing. Strictly speaking this isn’t a “fencing” job, but the key skills involved were similar, building metal structures, welding and working to targets. Jacksons pride themselves in a flexible approach to fulfilling customers’ requirements, so being aware of this Ron got in touch with Jacksons, who he enjoys a good working relationship with, as they have fulfilled many fencing projects for the animal park over the years.
The wall between two old stalls was demolished to create one large bedroom. Then it was Jacksons job to build a structure within the building. This could be described as a safety cage – a hefty steel framework was installed and 75 x 12mm flat bar was welded onto the framework. The bars were spaced at critical intervals of no more than 70mm apart, this is to stop Jums fitting his trunk through the gaps and undoing nuts and bolts, apparently elephants will fiddle with things and he could easily interfere with the operating equipment on his new quarter’s door, and maybe undo vital fastenings.
The doorway is 3m high with an opening of 2290m. An automatic sliding gate capable of withstanding 8–10 tons of force has been installed to keep Jums safe if he decides he wants to go for a stroll, when he’s supposed to be tucked up in bed. Another part of the plan is to have an access corridor at the rear of the stall, this walkway runs the full length of the stall and is accessed by doors in the back wall and has a gate in the steel bar wall, so keepers can get in and out safely.
Nine extra skylights were added to the roof of Jums new room, he will benefit by having more natural light, but it is an important safety aid to the elephant keepers, who naturally take safety seriously - well you would have to considering what six tons of elephant can do to a person if they are in a mood!
Talking of which, bull elephants periodically go into a state called Musth, it’s not fully understood exactly what the function of this is. Male elephants can become extremely aggressive towards other elephants and people. Neil Spooner, Director of Animals, at Howletts explained to me on the day I visited to see Jums try out his new quarters.
“The signs of a bull elephant being in Musth are sticky secretions from a gland between the eye and ear, a pungent musty odour, an aggressive stance – head and ears held high, dribbling of urine. Jums is showing all these signs at the moment. Ironically, the people he likes most when he’s not in musth, are those he likes least when he is. He’s in Musth at the moment, so there’s an added element of excitement, we don’t really know how he is going to react to being introduced to his new home, he may act up going in for the first time!”
Along with the work on Jums’ quarters Jacksons were tasked with extending the height of the steel barricade in the corral in front of the elephants’ houses. The barricade looks like heavy-duty steel beams bolted and welded together to create a super strength safety barrier in front of the fence separating the visitors from the elephants. Apparently Jums is so tall now he has been able to rest his front feet on the lowest rail of the barrier and reach right over the space and over the fence; so another section has been added to avoid this happening.
“The Jacksons welders that have been carrying out this work on site have been amazing,“ Neil Spooner continued, “They have been so enthusiastic in their approach to the work; they set daily targets on jobs to be completed, and took a real pride in ensuring they hit them, nothing stopped them, not even bad weather. I’ve come past late into the evening and found them still working, determined to not let the schedule slip. They are a credit to the company.”
Neil took me to see the big bull and the rest of the elephant herd before we went to check on how the preparations were going for the bedroom trial. He gave me some background on the herd and the animal park.
“The elephant herd at Howletts numbers fourteen. They have 7- 8 acres of varied outdoor environment. Jums who is now in his thirties is in the top 3 breeding bull elephants in the world. Bloodlines are incredibly important; we have to ensure that he doesn’t impregnate any of his siblings within the herd, in order to keep the bloodlines pure. At some point he may be transferred to another animal park to improve genetic variations, but only if it was considered the right move. The ethos of Howletts and the sister park Port Lympne, is to always put the animals needs first. Most are rare or endangered. The parks were founded by the late John Aspinall and were his life’s work, his legacy is continued by his son Damian.”
The appointed hour for Jums to try out his new home was getting close. Neil wanted to check that all was in order before we started. He had ordered 3 tons of sand to be heaped in the corner of the stall as a pillow. It sounds quite a lot, 3 tons, but I think we all agreed when we looked in that it would need more, as we watched David the head elephant keeper and Neil add the final truck load. Apparently the bull may well use it as a pillow, he has been known to do this, otherwise he may kick it around his stall as bedding.
Whilst we hovered expectantly in the safety walkway that served as a viewing gallery at the rear of the new quarters, Jums was escorted to the huge doorway to his new spacious accommodation. We held our collective breath as he hesitated for a moment in the doorway... he moved forward, his head and ears were down, so I took this as a good sign; he wasn’t feeling aggressive.
Then he walked in to his brand new home, glanced at the sand pillow, and then spotted something far more interesting in the opposite corner – a sprinkling of food. At this point the huge gate started to slide shut. Would he realize that the gate was closing him in and would he object to being shut in somewhere new? And would he decide to react and see if he could get out and test the gate, that is designed to withstand (we hope) up to 10 tons of force?
Well it was no, no, no and no. Even though he was in Musth, Jums went over to his food, not phased at all by the new surroundings, the gate sliding to a close and the audience of eight of us who were privileged to be there, and who breathed a sigh of relief, that he wasn’t bothered one jot, when he started to tuck in to the food.
He did turn round and stare at the doorway when the gate fully closed, and did a bit of a trunk swinging dance around the space, and gave me some beady eyed stares as I took his photo, but this was once we had all relaxed and we were laughing nervously about how well it had gone, maybe that was to keep us on our toes? But I’d like to think with the spirit of anthropomorphises as we humans tend to do, that he rather liked his new bedroom!
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