Spunk in the Trunk: Kandula gets hot and heavy with zooyard toys.
Spunk in the Trunk: Kandula gets hot and heavy with zooyard toys. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Kandula, the National Zoo’s 6-year-old bull elephant, began showing signs of a change a little over a year ago. He started spending more time away from his mother and lashing out at his toys. Keepers could see him flexing his growing muscles, occasionally flashing the whites of his eyes.

Kandula was becoming an adolescent jerk.

“He’s full of himself, like a teenage boy would be,” says Dr. Don Moore, associate director of animal care.

Elephant manager Marie Galloway thinks Moore exaggerates a bit.

“Independent is really the word to use,” she says. “He’s just full of life and joy. He loves the stimulation of training.”

That training includes activities like “mounting the ball,” a simulation of sex in which Kandula climbs on top of a tan 32-inch plastic ball and gives it a few minutes of rhythmic back and forth, sometimes to the finish.

“He has ejaculated on the ball,” says Galloway.

Kandula’s virility is important to conservationists hoping to resuscitate the dwindling world population of Asian elephants. There are just 30,000 left in the wild, and Kandula is only the fifth conceived in captivity through artificial insemination.

But his development has also become something of an object lesson in our collective obsession with sexuality. His anatomy often produces opportunities for teaching when children ask about the elephant’s other trunk. And even though puberty is still a few years off, zoo police became so convinced of the young bull’s imminent horniness that they took his condition into consideration when reviewing the park’s protocol for how to handle animal escapes.

Galloway says they shouldn’t be so worried.

“He’s simply a male elephant,” she says. He’s also the first bull she’s worked with in 20 years, and she says it’s like working with a new species. “Male survival is based on the right to reproduce. He has to prove that he’s the biggest, toughest guy,” she says.

Kandula is the only male in a house of three elephants. And though his behavioral changes were a sign of normal progression, they came earlier than they might have in the wild. When male elephants grow up with older males, their social, physical, and sexual development is repressed. Without a dominant male presence, they start acting out before their time.

Knowing Kandula might be tempted to test his boundaries, keepers stopped interacting with him face-to-face and now direct him with tools stuck through the bars of his enclosure. For weighing and medical examinations, he knows to walk into a contraption called a hug, which holds large animals in a tight but comfortable embrace.

Kandula’s still afraid of confronting the women in his life: his mom, Shanthi, and the Zoo’s matriarch, 60-year-old Ambika. Kandula, who was born at 250 pounds, now weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. He’s still no match for his 5-ton mama.

“They keep him in line,” Moore says. “It’s like teenage human boys. If mom’s around, well maybe I’ll behave…unless she turns her head.”

He tests their patience only tentatively. “Mostly it’s posturing,” Galloway says. He’ll give Ambika a tough-guy vibe when he’s standing safely behind his mom.

Both Moore and Galloway agree Kandula could get the girls if he wanted them, and if there were any available young cows. Moore describes Kandula as “muscular and good-looking” with symmetrical features matching the ideal for his species. “He’s the 16-year-old in high school who makes the first string,” Moore says. “He’s not a little fatty. He’s been working out. All the high school girls would be chasing him around.”

Kandula’s tusks are perhaps the biggest point of disagreement between Moore and Galloway. When asked if the young bull will grow tusks, Moore gives a confident “Yes!”

“He’ll develop very nice tusks,” he says.

Galloway disagrees.

Kandula is 100 percent Sri Lankan, she says, and fewer than 10 percent of Sri Lankan males grow long tusks. True to his blood, she says, Kandula’s nubs are brittle and break off before they grow more than a few inches. Despite these facts, she grumbles, the male keepers refuse to give up hope. They hold their hands out and say, if the ivory hadn’t broken, his tusks would be this long!

Size aside, Kandula knows how to use what he’s got, and employs his stubby lances for rooting through his snacks of tree limbs.

His increasing assertiveness echoes a phenomenon occurring in the wild. For the last two decades, violent behavior among Asian and African elephants has been on the rise. The details are frightening: unprovoked attacks killing upward of a thousand humans and several disturbing acts of violence against other animals. In South Africa, young male elephants have begun assaulting and, according to some news reports, raping rhinos.

Scientists attribute the behavior to a pachyderm version of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the loss of older male family members through poaching and culling.

“I know from tough,” he says, “and Kandula is headed in that direction way early, like those South African little punks.”

Moore says, however, that Kandula will never exhibit the kind of extreme violence found in Asia and Africa. That means Happy the Hippo is safe.