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Celebrating the Holidays at Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland Park

Wildlife Wednesdays: First Birthday for Baby Elephant Luna and Conserving Elephants in the Wild

posted on May 25th, 2011 by Dr. Mark Stetter, Director of Animal Operations, Disney Parks


At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, our guests get to see elephants in a beautiful, naturalistic setting. This is just one of the many ways that we are inspiring conservation by connecting families with the wonders of the natural world.

Baby Elephant Luna at Disney's Animal Kingdom

I’m pleased to report that we’ve recently achieved two elephant conservation milestones – the first milestone is the birthday of our youngest elephant calf, Luna, who was born to second-time mom, Donna, one year ago this past Friday, May 20. At her birth, which was announced here on the Disney Parks Blog, Luna weighed 288 pounds.

Donna and Her Calf, Luna, at Disney's Animal Kingdom

With an average weight gain of 2 pounds per day, Luna now weighs a whopping 896 pounds! Elephant team members tell us that her favorite things to do are playing with the other elephant calves – and in the mud wallow on the Kilimanjaro Safaris – and chasing the native birds that “dare” to enter her habitat.

Luna is the fifth elephant born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. In addition to Donna’s first female calf Nadirah, Tufani, a male, was born in 2003; Kianga, a female, was born in 2004; and Tsavo, the youngest male, joined the herd in 2008. All remain on the savanna at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. These births represent a conservation milestone because the number of elephants in North American zoological facilities and wildlife centers has been dwindling and Disney’s Animal Kingdom is participating in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Elephant Species Survival Plan. Research has shown that, when people see elephants and other wildlife face-to-face, they feel a strong connection and are motivated to take action to protect wildlife and nature. And having elephant babies enables our elephants to live in herds with moms, “aunties” and youngsters, as they would in the wild.

Disney Elephant Conservation Efforts

Since elephants are an endangered species, the second conservation milestone might seem confusing at first. It’s elephant population management in the wild. Because elephant habitat in Africa is shrinking, in some areas there are more elephants than the limited amount of habitat can sustain. During the past seven years, I’ve had the opportunity, with other team members, to be part of an international coalition of veterinarians, conservation groups and others traveling to Africa to perform laparoscopic vasectomies on bull elephants. The goal is to help humanely control the population as an alternative to culling. The procedure is designed to reduce the elephant birth rates in wildlife reserves, while maintaining normal social behaviors for the individual elephants. Our elephant population management program has now been utilized in two African countries and six different wildlife reserves. With no other alternatives, most of these reserves were poised to hunt these elephants without our help.

On our most recent trip, which took place earlier this month, we performed vasectomies on 14 bull elephants in the Selati Wildlife Reserve in South Africa. All the elephants recovered well from the procedure. We also taught South African veterinarians how to perform the vasectomies and they were performing the surgeries on their own by the end of the trip. The team from Disney started this important work many years ago and I’m proud to have seen its growth and success. From these efforts, the Elephant Population Management Program was formed and is now its own non-profit conservation organization. This is just one way that we are helping to conserve elephants in the wild.

Helping animals – and inspiring conservation by connecting people with the wonder of the natural world – are efforts that we all can be very proud of.

To learn more about Disney conservation efforts, visit www.disney.com/conservation.

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First Birthday for a Special Gorilla at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 18th, 2011 by Dr. Mark Stetter, Director of Animal Operations, Disney Parks


Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan

Tomorrow, February 19, Lilly, an endangered western lowland gorilla born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, will be one year old. Speaking from a veterinarian’s perspective, Lilly’s first year has been a bit like trying to solve a challenging puzzle – one that, even if you don’t uncover all the answers, will result in valuable lessons learned and progress made.

Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla and Her Mother, Kashata, By: Gene Duncan

Shortly after her birth, our animal care team noticed that Lilly wasn’t clinging to her mother, Kashata, as well as most gorilla newborns. As time passed, we saw that Lilly was much smaller than other gorillas her age, and she was delayed in achieving typical baby gorilla milestones, like grasping, rolling over and crawling.

Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan

We are committed to providing all of our animals with the best care. In Lilly’s case, in addition to examinations at our veterinary hospital, we consulted with external medical and pediatric experts, and oversaw a battery of tests to rule out possible causes – such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders and liver abnormalities. Back to that puzzle I mentioned: The exact cause of Lilly’s condition is still unknown. The great news is that, during the course of Lilly’s first year, we’ve had the opportunity to pioneer new protocols in animal care, and the result is that Lilly is continuing to make progress.

Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan

Each day, for example, our animal keepers engage Lilly in what appears to be a form of play but, in reality, is structured occupational therapy. They encourage her to climb, roll over and grasp objects, such as gorilla toys, all in an effort to strengthen her muscles and stimulate her curiosity. Since September, the team has noticed a marked difference in Lilly. She now weighs 13 pounds – three pounds more than she did in November, and she appears much more active and social among her family group.

Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan Lilly, An Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla, By: Gene Duncan

Our Guests are captivated by Lilly and love watching her as she interacts with her mom, Kashata, and father, Gino, in their habitat on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. And, although we continue to monitor her closely, we are encouraged by the progress in her stamina, strength and dexterity. We’re also pleased to be able to share what we learn taking care of Lilly to benefit other wildlife and conservation efforts.

For more on Disney conservation efforts, visit www.disney.com/conservation.

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Wildlife Wednesdays: It Takes People to Save Wildlife and Nature

posted on January 26th, 2011 by Dr. Mark Stetter, Director of Animal Operations, Disney Parks


For my first Disney Parks Blog post, I’d like to share a story on a topic that may be surprising coming from a veterinarian and Director of Animal Health because it’s not about animal care or medicine. In fact, it’s not even directly about animals. It’s about Mrs. Nomusa Zikhali, the principal of a school in rural South Africa, who started her school with a handful of students under a tree. Today, thanks to her leadership and perseverance, Nkomo Primary School provides hope and education to more than 800 children, many of whom have been orphaned by HIV. She is an amazing example of the impact one person can have.

Mrs. Nomusa Zikhali, Principal of the Nkomo Primary School

I had the honor of meeting Mrs. Zikhali several years ago during a trip to Africa for work on an elephant conservation project that I will tell you more about in a future post. In the years since then, Disney and a local Central Florida school, Palm Lake Elementary, have helped with school improvement projects, wildlife conservation education enhancements and a hot meal program sponsored by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

Last month, we worked with The Africa Foundation to help sponsor a visit by Mrs. Zikhali to the Walt Disney World Resort. What an incredible experience for her and for us! Imagine a woman from the heartland of Zululand, traveling to Orlando in the middle of our busy holiday season. During her visit, she shared her inspirational story with Disney Cast Members, including African Cultural Representatives at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, and students and teachers from Palm Lake Elementary. We also surprised Mrs. Zikhali with a $10,000 donation from the Walt Disney World Resort which she hopes to use for two additional classrooms.

Mrs. Nomusa Zikhali, Principal of the Nkomo Primary School

The Nkomo school kids live in an incredible area just next to the Phinda Game Reserve with elephants, zebras and rhinos right in their backyard. Even though I noted at the start of this post that it is not directly about animals, helping the people who live side by side with endangered wildlife is an essential part of conservation. Our next step will focus on building on our initial efforts in conservation education through enhanced programs and teacher training that incorporate learning about wildlife and nature into the school curriculum. Our goal is to take care of the kids and to teach them to care about and value wildlife and nature. By supporting Mrs. Zikhali and her school, we hope to do just that.

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