The Topeka Zoo

Elephant Fact Sheet

Section 1 – Overview:


This zoo houses two elephants of different species -- Tembo, a 35-year old African elephant, and Sunda, a 44-year old Asian elephant. These elephants have chronic problems with their feet, and the zoo was cited in a 1995 USDA inspection report for having inadequate vet care, in part related to the treatment of the elephants’ feet. (See below).

The elephants have some behavioral issues, particularly Sunda, who is aggressive toward keepers and exhibits stereotypic rocking behavior.

Both elephants have chronic temporal gland abscesses, and ingest foreign objects on a regular basis. Tembo suffers from periodic ventral edema.

In 2001, they survived an apparent incident involving poisoning or ingestion of toxic substance. The zoo does not appear to have determined the exact cause, but they could not rule out the possibility that something damaging was given to the elephants by a member of the public, which has access to the animals during zoo business hours.


The zoo provided only schematic drawings for the exhibit. It appears to be a T-shaped yard, which at its widest and longest points the enclosure is 175 ft. X 135 feet. The whole outdoor exhibit appears to be well under a half-acre. The substrate is dirt and sand. It is bordered with electric fencing to prevent the elephants from reaching to foliage surrounding the yard. In 2004, the exhibit was updated with a pool and shade structure.

The indoor area is called the Large Mammal Building., which currently houses the elephants, hippopotami, giraffes, colobus, lemurs, storks, cranes and other smaller species.

The Zoo says that it will this year be embarking on an expansion that will add 5,000 square feet of living space for the zoo elephants and giraffes. It says the addition will “allow us to provide more space for our elephants, Sunda and Tembo, while also being able to accommodate two additional elephants in the near future.” In reality, the expansion, if completed, will bring the zoo into compliance with the AZA’s current, minimal elephant care standards. Part of the expansion is a request to build an Elephant Restraint Device, which the zoo currently lacks. The USDA cited the facility in 2005 for its lack of an ERD, and resultant inability to secure the elephants for necessary medical and husbandry treatments (see below). The estimated cost for the expansion is 1.8 million.


Protected contact. However, the Zoo lacks an Elephant Restraint Device and relies on the elephants’ compliance and training to accomplish foot care and other treatments. It appears that while one elephant is being worked on, the other elephant is chained. The zoo has had staffing and training problems with its elephant caretakers.

The Zoo’s Elephant Program Manual states that “Physical discipline of any kind will not be tolerated.”



In 2000, the Topeka Zoo’s AZA accreditation was tabled, and in 2001 it was tabled again for six months. The issues noted were:

In 2002, the zoo was trying to fill 12 keeper positions at the same time. However, the AZA apparently accredited the zoo that year, as the AZA currently lists Topeka as accredited through Sept. 2007 (accreditation terms are five years). The recent findings of USDA with regard to the inadequacy of the zoo’s elephant program do not appear to have impacted the zoo’s accreditation with the AZA.


The Topeka Zoo has had a history of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. In 1998, after a year-long investigation, the USDA filed formal charges against the Topeka Zoo, stating that the zoo "grossly mishandled" several animals in its care and imperiled their health and safety. In 2003, the Zoo received a Warning Letter from USDA for failing to ensure that animals housed in the same enclosure were compatible. This related to the death of a red fox who was killed by bears. That incident, along with the death of a lion and an orangutan, and the housing of porcupines with Colobus monkeys were apparently the subject of complaints to the zoo by a former zoo employee.

On Oct.18, 2005, the USDA inspected the Topeka Zoo and cited the zoo for failing to provide adequate veterinary care to elephants. This inspection report states, “Elephant foot care at this facility is not adequate as evidenced by the poor condition of the feet at the time of inspection.” It notes:

The USDA also cited the zoo for failing to have a reliable method of restraint for elephants to allow for necessary husbandry and veterinary procedures.

It concludes, “If the licensee is to maintain elephants in this enclosure, they must make available the appropriate facilities to safely maintain these species and to properly provide for their husbandry. . . “

Section 2: Medical Records Analysis


Sunda, Age 44 (DOB~1962)
Female Asian Elephant
Originally from the foothills of the Himalayas
Arrived at Topeka Zoo in 1966 from Germany

A zoo profile describes her as slow to accept new staff members. She has a habit of luring keepers into a position where she is able to “lash out at them,” and is described as “sneaky.” When upset, she displaces her aggression into walls and bars. She easily becomes bored with the same routine. Several entries in her medical records note aggression toward staff.

Although her medical records do not note it, Sunda appears to exhibit stereotypical behavior. During an observation of Sunda made on May 20, 2006, this elephant rocked back and forth almost constantly. The Zoo’s Elephant Program Manual states that “every effort should be made to minimize stereotypic behaviors.

She has problems with soft pads on feet and needs constant maintenance to prevent problems. She has trouble with splitting nails, both from pressure and from rubbing them on things. She has noted deterioration of digits in her front feet. According to inspector for USDA she has severe cracks in all four feet and also has a bulge and soft area of the pad of her RF front which he used to site the zoo for inadequate foot care. She also had to have the bottom twelve inches of her tail amputated due to skin cancer. She has a chronically abscessed left temporal gland.

In Jan. 2001, Sunda and Tembo survived an acute illness which apparently involved some kind of poisoning or ingestion of toxic materials. IT does not appear that the zoo ever determined the exact cause, but it could not rule out the possibility that a member of the public had given the elephants something harmful, as the public has access to the elephants during the day when the zoo is open.

Tembo, age 35 (DOB ~ 1971)
Female African
Arrived at Topeka Zoo March 1976
Purchased from a ranch in New Jersey that had imported her from Africa.

Tembo’s zoo profile describes her as arriving at the zoo as a “pistol full of vigor” with no training.

She enjoys “snotting” people when she is upset also mock charging and trunk swings at staff also Her right tusk had to be removed 19 March 1990 after she cracked it up into the gum-line. The heels of her back feet have a tendency to crack and she has had problems with toenails cracking on back feet, according to the zoo's elephant manual information. According to USDA inspector in Oct 2005, all four of her feet were found to be severely cracked and inadequate foot care has been an issue. She has also had several temporal gland abscesses on her right side over the span of the records and has been suffering from ventral edemas on the abdomen and genital area which vary in size for the past two years. Tembo also has ingested numerous types of foreign objects from electrical cable to hose parts to plastic bags. This is noted quite frequently in her records.

Like Sunda, Tembo survived a 2001 incident in which it appears that both elephants were poisoned or ingested toxic substances.




31 Oct 00 - Discontinued use of Biotin for the elephants since there has been no evidence that Biotin supplementation helps the condition of elephants’ feet.

14 May 01 - reported limping on right front foot. Rectangular area had been scraped out of the center of her foot. unsure how it occurred. Prescribed 3 aspirin in bran mash and to leave her overnight. Limp improved some following day but not resolved. (26 of 173)

09 Nov 01 - foot check described as feet looking good. "only smaller crack around some of the nails" noted.

04 Jan 02 - foot care showed soles of hind feel improved, minor superficial cracks found around nails. Vet unable to check front feet however and it is unclear what the feet have improved from.

28 Feb 02 - hind feet described as looking better with no deep cracks. front feet describes as having cracks that need to be addressed.

05 Apr 02 - foot assessment states that front feet need to be addressed more often. Crack on right front larger toenail noted.

19 Aug 02 - vet recommends more trimming between the toes and the edges of toes and taking off more of the soles when working on feet. Stated that feet looked much better. (37 of 173)

11 Sept. – 15 Sept. 03 – given phenylbutazone, but unclear in records as to why.

22 Jan 03 - crack in sole between nail of left hind foot with flap of skin only partially covering flap. Removed excessive skin and treating area with Koppertox for 3 days. (39 of 173)

08 Feb 05 - still has thick pads with deep grooves but much improved. Photographed feet for USDA. Began treating temporal gland with honey on this date as well.

08 Feb 05 - still has thick pads with deep grooves but much improved. Photographed feet for USDA.


03 Aug 00 - problem with temporal gland noted.

17 Aug 01 - temporal gland swollen and removed packed on dirt during bath. (27 of 173)

11 Sept 01 - left temporal gland infected again. This problem is noted and treated frequently throughout the records on the following dates: 02 Oct 01, 09 Oct 01, 16 Oct 01, 13 Nov 01, 10 Dec 01, 04 Jan 02, 06 Jan 02, 08 Feb 02, 19 Feb 02, 27 July 03, 06 Apr 04, 24 Oct 04, Began treating gland with honey on 08 Feb 05.

13 Nov 01 - withholding treatment on still draining temporal gland for one week in order to culture it for antibiotic sensitivity to treat. Culture taken on the 19th. Swab revealed Strep C and is being treated with Cephapirin Benzathine for 5-10 days.

4 Jan 02: Vet recommends cleaning and rinsing temporal gland with Nolvasan until further notice. On the 06th of Jan culture of gland showed moderate amounts of WBC, many gram pos. Cocci in pairs, many small gram neg rods, moderate gram pos. rods. Isolated beta Streptococcus group C and Isolated Staphylococcus sp.

19 Feb 02 - Impacted temporal gland broke open a few days ago and lots of pus and necrotic material came out. Animal is not tolerating anyone touching the area for any kind of treatments. Noted to begin rinsing with Hydrogen Peroxide once she begins allowing treatments again.

30 July 03 - skin around temporal gland in sloughing off after an abscess of area broke and drained several days previous.

06 Apr 04 - once again animal is sloughing off skin around temporal gland and is very sensitive about area and not allowing treatments on it.

05 Feb. 05 – began treating temporal abscess with raw honey.


11 Dec 00 - Vet advised the elephant supervisor to keep animals indoors due to minus 30 degree wind chill.

12 Dec. 00 – Elephants put outdoors in cold temps for 15 minutes while stalls were cleaned.

13 Dec 00 – Elephants put in rhino stall while their stall was being cleaned. Zoo states that it will do this from now on when temps are cold.

03 July 02 - Vet unable to draw blood. Stated that animal would not tolerate procedure. Same problem noted on the 11th of July and again on the 25th of July. Noted the need to attempt collection of blood from another vein. Trouble taking blood again noted on 17th Oct 02, 02 July 03, (starts on 36 of 173)

30 Oct 02 - very aggressive towards staff during routine trunk wash to check for Mycobacteria. Unable to collect more that a small sample. (38 of 173)

30 Dec. 02: Very aggressive today. Charging us several times.

2 Jan. 03: Behaving better (Mike present.).

30 Dec. 03: Fasting animals and turning off water overnight to facilitate trunk washes for Tb the next day.


11 Jan 01 - Sunda almost catatonic in the morning. No resistance to chaining and transferring. Moderate presentation of Parkinsonian like movement in the end of her trunk and Tembo is showing similar symptoms as well as increased frequency of urination. A copy of Tembo's file is included listing problems that include lethargy, depression, possible pain, GI distress, diarrhea, weak back legs, possible hyperthermia, hyperventilation, hyponatremia, hypochloremia, bilateral ocular discharge, muscular fasciculation and or tremors in the trunk, trunk incoordination and weakness, little appetite, as well as the increased urinary frequency. Sunda's problems noted as similar to but less severe than Tembo's. Tembo is described as “very sick.” Sunda seems to be acting photophobic as well. Tox screens were sent out to see if animals were given some kind of drugs. Zoo cannot rule out the possibility that a member of the public gave the elephants something toxic, because the public has access to the elephants during the day when the zoo has opened.
Overnight watch showed both animals uncomfortable and unable to sleep. Sunda keeps lying down to sleep and Tembo pulls her tail. Sunda lay down 15 times during the night. Sunda appears improved some by the following day.

14 Jan 01 - both animals seemed able to sleep and were behaving almost normally by this date. Staff trying to get them back on a regular routine schedule. Phone reports from all lab samples sent in on issue were negative, but written reports have not been received.

26 Feb 01 - able to put outside today. Normal going out, but lethargic and not eating well upon being brought inside. Also, has frequent blepharospasms noted on 27th. Blood drawn for further testing. Showed normal count except for low potassium.


17 Jan 02 - animal irritable. Found portion of molar in the morning. She does not appear to be troubled eating and tooth does not appear inflamed at time. Opted to observe only.

01 Feb 02 - has remained irritable and has been seen feeling her tooth with her trunk. Found black area on medial surface of back half of fractured tooth on left upper molar about 3x4 cm. Given hard branches to chew on as treatment. Waiting for assessment with Dr Isaza following week. Tooth ache noted again on the 06th of Feb and vet specialist is scheduled for two more days. Still no obvious treatments being offered. Began to rinse and flush area occasionally with Nolvasan on the 08th of Feb. A possible problem with the other molar noted as well as she touched this one more often with her trunk than the one with black patch.


12 May 02 - found abrasion on trunk. Note states "was unable to wash - only having one elephant keeper on grounds."

12 Jan 03 - another cut on side of trunk noted as superficial.

20 Jan 03 - seen ingesting a small electrical conduct. Will check stools for passing of object.

24 Jan 03 - feces appears dark in color possibly due to ingestion of foreign object.

24 May 03 - keepers noted a dime size lump on left side of trunk 3 feet up from the tip.

03 Oct 03 - was found playing with a piece of rebar from the construction site. Able to convince her to trade it and she did not appear to have chewed on it or otherwise injured herself with it.

29 Apr 04 - plastic bag parts found in feces today. Same problem also noted on 13 Sept 04

21 Mar 05 - got a hydraulic cable and pulled pieces of hot-wire and insulators off. One insulator missing. Possibly ingested.



11 Jan 01 - depressed am, leaning on front bars with her head pressed such that her tusk was braced on the bar. Non-responsive. White discharge from both eyes. Eyes reflected pain, and fear. GI distress, diarrhea, weak back limbs, possible hyperthermia, muscle fasciculation and twitching of trunk, uncoordination of trunk and weakness, hyponatremia, hypochloremia, little appetite, increased frequency of urination. She was worse that Sunda appeared at first. Blood drawn, did not respond to chaining or commands to move up. CBC normal with low WBC. Some values in blood suggestive of hyperventilation. Given pepto on bread, gatoraide and electrolyte drinks. 1 gm of Phenylbutazone and 8 oz Pepto. She is refusing food which is very strange for this particular animal. Significant difficulty walking to shift stalls in the afternoon. Gait slow and stilted. Flapping ears constantly throughout the day possibly to try and thermoregulate.

12 Jan 01 – Tembo buckling in rear legs, weakness and tremor. Dr Ramiro Isaza and Dr John Pickeral came over from KSU to look at sick eles. Dr Isaza is touted as being a board certified vet who works with the Ringling Bros. elephants and Pickeral is a toxicologist. Many of the behaviors seen had already ceased. Agreed that some sort of toxin was most likely the problem. Concerned that insecticides got into the animal hay or grain or enrichment items offered. Samples taken to rule it out. Isaza noted that elephants typically break out with diarrhea when stressed but it does not usually bring on the other symptoms noted.

14 Jan 01 - tired but otherwise seems back to normal.

15 Jan 01 - plan is to do blood draws weekly for a minimum of 4 weeks to assess any possible kidney damage from illness.


14 Feb 01 - lameness right front limb. Treated with aspirin for 3 days.

14 Mar 01 - nail separation on nail of 3rd digit on right front foot. This problem is noted as a problem in every entry in her records through 2005. It is typically treated by rinsing with nolvasan and foot soaks

18 Sept 01 - Nail separation of front right nail digit 3.

04 Jan 02 - peeling overgrown layers off the soles of her feet today. Working on areas of nails that are described as having deep rot. Removed necrotic layers until skin thinned around nails on both hind feet. Copper Sulfate used. Also noted that keepers should strive to do feet 2-3 times per week and start training her again to do her front feet.

30 May 02 - foot assessment showed need to take off more dead skin. Front feet described as needing a lot of work. Deep grooves to be worked on and whole sole covered in thick layer of skin.

01 Jan 05 - cleaning a wound on right hind foot. The following day's entry talks about a flap of skin that was trimmed back flush with the surface to stop the trapping of dirt into the wound. Began treating with Nolvasan and Koppertox


18 Sept 01 – Tembo monitored for ingestion and passing of baling twine. Had problems with diarrhea and was a bit lethargic for several days. On the 17th called the vet that she was lethargic and was being picked on some by Sunda. Must have been introduced to her accidentally during a feed.

01 Nov 01 - laceration on trunk

30 Dec 01 - playing with a traffic cone and swallowed the tip off the cone. Monitoring her feces. Began passing it the following day.

20 Apr 04 - found plastic bag in fecal matter. Not sure who ate and passed it.

07 Aug 04 - a hose was left too close and Tembo pulled it into exhibit and chewed it up. About 2 inches of hose are missing and assumed ingested. Will watch fecals for passing. Found pieces of hose in feces starting the following day. (61 of 180)

20 Jan 03 - noticed ingesting a small piece of electrical conduct.

24 Jan 03 - dark feces on exhibit possibly due to electrical conduct passing.

21 Mar 05 - had access to hydraulic cable and pulled pieced of hot-wire and insulator off. Insulator missing and assumed ingested. Watching fecals.


22 July 01- abscess right temporal area

22 July 02 - abscess on right temporal area looks ready to rupture. Hosing with warm water to help "ripen it" to rupture.

01 Aug 02 - Abscess ruptured, swelling reduced. Tolerates hosing it well.

11 Feb 03 - skin lesions right temporal area (52 of 180)


07 Jan 03 - ventral edema, possibly hormonally induced post estrus. Noted numerous times as problem after this date.

26 July 03 - Ventral edema described as increasing in size again. Also has had cloudy urine for the past few weeks.

19 Nov 03- Edema on abdomen is described as swelling again. Urine remains cloudy. Cycling possible cause.

06 Feb 05 - showing edema around abdomen and genitalia again. Seem larger that before, especially in genital region.


18 Mar 04 - dime size discoloration on left sulcus.