Zuzu, a 5-month-old hound mix puppy hailing from the Humane Society of Greater Rochester’s Lollypop Farm, is the pick of the litter. This young dog was specially chosen as the Seneca Park Zoo’s first elephant barn dog, and she’s already winning over her giant new pachyderm pals.
A handful of zoos across the country have launched programs like this in the past with elephants and other animals, so the team at Seneca Park in New York wanted to try it out — with a dog. Lindsay Brinda, the zoo’s elephant manager and assistant curator, attended meetings with elephant managers at other zoos and learned about elephant barn dog programs around the country.
“I reached out to our local Humane Society Lollypop Farms when we were looking for a dog. They have behaviorists there, and I gave them a list of the behaviors I would want the dog or the puppy to have for this job. And they found her for us. I wanted a very calm puppy,” Brinda tells PEOPLE.
“They have a farm there, with horses and pigs, and I wanted the puppy to be very calm around the large farm animals,” she continues. “I wanted the dog to like multiple people and be able to be handled by multiple people and not just want to be handled by one specific person like some breeds do. I wanted a younger dog because I wanted this dog to be around for , but I left the rest of it up to them.”
Zuzu arrived at Seneca Park Zoo last Sunday, and Brinda proudly reports that she’s doing great. Zuzu is “super calm” and she’s already learned three behaviors. “She loves everybody and the public loves her,” says Brinda. “The elephants are getting used to her.”
Right now, during training sessions with the elephants, the zookeepers are giving the four “Golden Girls” — senior females named Genny C, Lilac, Moki and Chana, age 36 to 41 — their favorite treats (bagels!) while Zuzu calmly sits and watches them. There’s a barrier creating distance between the canine and her large mammal counterparts as they get to know each other, but eventually the zoo hopes that both species will be comfortable living in the same space together. Each elephant met Zuzu by themselves in a training session, and Brinda reports the pup and her pachyderm pals are getting along well thus far.
Through Zuzu, the zoo aims to explain and show the public how it uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to train the elephants and other zoo animals to participate and socialize with each other.
Larry Staub, director of the Seneca Park Zoo, says, “We find a lot of guests always wonder, ‘How do you get these large animals to do different behaviors, and how do you train them?’ They’re almost incredulous that we’re able to do that under the conditions of a zoo. So by showing them on a dog — which they’re more familiar with because many of them have dogs or have friends who have dogs — you can show them how you get a dog to do a behavior and it’s very similar to how you would get an elephant to do a behavior. Then are much more able to understand.”
Another very important aspect of the program, notes Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, is the companionship and bonding experience for the elephants. In their natural habitats, they have involvement with other species besides their own. “As we’re expanding our elephant exhibit,” says Dinolfo, “we’re making a more natural, better environment to take care of our elephants. Zuzu is a great addition, she provides both companionship and enrichment.”
The zoo already has a large elephant habitat, and it will be introducing giraffes in the fall. But as it introduces new species, Seneca Park is also planning to create multi-species habitats more akin to what these animals would experience in the wild.
“The giraffe habitat will include zebras, and ostriches will be introduced to the new rhino habitat. Lindsay Brinda is in charge of those habitats along with the elephants, and she is researching other species they can introduce, like tortoises and crowned cranes with the giraffes,” Staub explains.
“The visitors get to see multi-species habitats, and the animals get to experience more of what they would in their natural habitat. Plus, having Zuzu as part of the elephant program and as a larger part of the zoo program — she’s not limited just to elephants, she can interact with the other animals as well — it will just provide enrichment for all the animals,” Staub says.
Right now, Zuzu’s crate is in the elephant manager’s office, and while she’ll eventually be stationed in the elephant barn, she’ll also participate in the park’s 24-hour security program, doing early shift rounds with the security staff. She’ll then go into her crate overnight so she’s well-rested for her elephant work the next day.
The zoo assures there is always someone there for both Zuzu and the other zoo animals after hours. The pup is getting a lot of exercise, interacting with people and animals alike. Within a week’s time, visitors have begun specifically asking for Zuzu.
“We’ve got all these exotic animals, and people are coming to the zoo wanting to see a 5-month-old hound dog!” Staub laughs.
However, most people don’t get the chance to see a puppy with a massive elephant and watch them interact. The Seneca Park staff believes this is a great educational opportunity for everyone. The size differential between a dog who weighs 25 to 50 lbs. compared to an elephant who weighs tons may be what really drives the fascination for animal lovers. But for the animals themselves, the relationship helps with socialization across the board.
“I’m so thankful that Lindsay reached out and thought this would be a great addition to the Seneca Park Zoo. We’re involved in a very expansive transformation of the zoo,” Dinolfo tells PEOPLE. “The elephant exhibit is one that’s really being expanded and providing a better experience for visitors. It helps enrich and enhance the life of the animals, too.”