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Animals lend a helping hand at the zoo

February 22, 2021 7:00PM Kids News

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Keepers have been training the Aldabra giant tortoises at Melbourne Zoo to help with their own health checks. Picture: Zoos Victoria media_cameraKeepers have been training the Aldabra giant tortoises at Melbourne Zoo to help with their own health checks. Picture: Zoos Victoria


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Melbourne Zoo’s oldest residents have been helping their keepers, showing no one’s ever too old to learn.

Asian elephant Mek Kapah and Aldabra giant tortoises Wilbur, Little John and Jean have all learned to help out with their own health checks.

The tortoises, aged between 60 and 110 years old and weighing up to 200kg each, have been trained to lift up their feet and allow keepers to check for cracks and dryness.

“As part of their ongoing healthcare plan, we want to make sure they’re always going to be healthy and fit,” said reptile keeper Raelene Hobbs.

“One way of us doing that is making sure we provide them with choice and control to participate in their healthcare.

“They are starting to age and, as part of that, we would expect to start seeing things like cracks and dryness of the feet, or scutes* coming off. So we like to check them quite regularly.”

media_cameraVet Dr Sarah Frith puts a bandage on the shell of giant tortoise Little John. Picture: Zoos Victoria

The health check uses a target training program, developed by keepers over the past 15 years, that associates some of the tortoises’ favourite foods with a red target. Red is one of the few colours giant tortoises are able to see. This encourages the tortoises to present their feet for inspection.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Ms Hobbs said. “They pick it up really easily. The moment I show them that red target, they switch straight back into it.”

Aldabra giant tortoise having his foot checked. Picture: Zoos Victoria media_cameraAldabra giant tortoise having his foot checked. Picture: Zoos Victoria

Aldabra giant tortoises are one of a few surviving species of giant tortoise left in the wild and have been estimated to live up to 200 years. Wilbur is the zoo’s oldest resident and is thought to be at least 110 years old. Little John is thought to be at least 90.

These tortoises are listed as vulnerable in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, due to poaching* and habitat destruction.

Aldabra giant tortoises getting their feet checked

It’s well known that elephants have long memories and that’s certainly the case for Melbourne Zoo’s oldest elephant and herd matriarch* Mek Kapah.

The 48-year-old Asian elephant has learnt how to participate in her own health care, responding to keeper directions and standing still while she has her eyes examined.

Mek Kapah’s keepers suspected the ageing elephant’s eyesight was becoming blurry, so organised the examination by veterinary ophthalmologist* Dr Anu O’Reilly.

“Our keepers have noticed that, for a little while, she has been showing signs that she might be having some vision problems,” said Melbourne Zoo vet Dr Kate Bodley, who supervised the examination.

Mek Kapah the oldest Asian elephant. Picture: Zoos Victoria media_cameraAt 48, Mek Kapah is an elderly Asian elephant and matriarch of the herd at Melbourne Zoo. Picture: Zoos Victoria

After a thorough examination, Dr O’Reilly discovered Mek Kapah is experiencing the early symptoms of lens changes, which affects the eye’s ability to shift focus, typically a result of ageing in both animals and humans.

“We did find that she had some very mild, very early changes to the lenses of both eyes that would explain why she has been showing us some very mild signs of vision change,” said Dr Bodley.

“She’s an older elephant and lens changes frequently happen in older animals, which just means her vision’s not as clear, and things are possibly looking a little bit fuzzy.

“If she’s in an area where the light is low, or if she is doing something and not concentrating, she might find that her judgment of depth might be not as good as it was.”

The diagnosis* was considered “a good result” by Dr O’Reilly and Dr Bodley, who said that Mek Kapah doesn’t require specific treatment at the moment.

If Mek Kapah was a human, an optometrist might prescribe glasses to help her see clearly. However, in Mek Kapah’s case, keepers will modify her environment, starting with white paint to mark certain areas in her training spaces, removing the risk of her bumping into anything. Her eyes will be checked every three months.

At 48, Mek Kapah is considered elderly for an Asian elephant.

Asian elephants were once widespread throughout Asia, but are now classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, with only an estimated 40,000 remaining in the wild. Zoos Victoria’s ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ campaign aims to raise awareness about unsustainable palm oil production in the habitat of the Asian elephant, calling for the clear labelling of palm oil on products in Australia.

Mek Kapah has her eyes checked


  • scutes: large bony or horn plates that make up the shell of tortoises
  • poaching: illegal hunting or stealing of wild animals
  • matriarch: female head of a family or herd
  • ophthalmologist: doctor specialising in eye care
  • diagnosis: identification of an illness or medical problem


A year of wonderful news at our zoos

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World’s loneliest elephant free to find friends


  1. What species of tortoise are Wilbur, Little John and Jean?
  2. How much does this species weigh?
  3. Explain how the tortoises are trained to help with foot checks.
  4. How old is Mek Kapah?
  5. What health check has she had recently?


1. Cartoon Capers
Draw a cartoon of these tortoises or elephant going in for their health checks. Try and make it a bit funny representing how they participate in the check-up. You can use speech bubbles if you’d like to include some words.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Visual Arts

2. Extension
In what ways would Mek Kapah’s life and caring for her change if she were to lose her vision? Do you think the zoo would be able to cater and accommodate for her in her older age?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

Read with Kung Fu Punctuation
Pair up with the article between you and stand up to make it easy to demonstrate your Kung Fu Punctuation.

Practice reading one sentence at a time. Now read it again, while acting out the punctuation as you read.

Read and act 3 sentences before swapping with your partner.

Have 2 turns each.

Now as a challenge ask your partner to read a sentence out loud while you try and act out the punctuation. Can you keep up?

Swap over?

Try acting out 2 sentences.

Are you laughing yet?

Have fun acting out your punctuation.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What zoo animal would you like to read a story about?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in animals