Shanthi, a 36-year-old Asian elephant at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, has a (rather large) ear for music, and when her keepers discovered her love of sound, they decided to let her try her trunk at some real instruments as part of her enrichment.
“She likes to tap on things with the tip of her trunk, she likes to flap her ears against things that make noise, she likes to rub her leg up and down brushes and repeat that noise. So we thought, ‘Why not go to harmonicas and horns and toys that she could blow and make sound with’?” says elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman.
Zookeepers provided the endangered pachyderm with a few horns and a harmonica, and without any prompting, Shanthi began to play. The elephant loves to blow into the instruments installed in her indoor habitat, and keepers say that she varies the force of the air to create different sounds.
Although Shanthi occasionally performs “gigs” for zoo visitors, she often plays music on her own with no instructions or encouragement from zoo staff, and her keepers say her impromptu concerts have become part of zoo life.
“I think what’s really amazing about the little ditties Shanthi comes up with is, musically, they really do have a beginning, a middle and an end,” Flinkman says. “They have a repetitive part that might have some beat that you could actually follow to it, and it has a big crescendo at the end. We all know there’s going to be a crescendo and we wait and then we applaud and go back to work.”
If you’d like to hear some of Shanthi's musical compositions, check out the video below. Visitors to the Smithsonian National Zoo can also witness her instrumental skills in person by attending elephant demonstrations that take place daily at 11 a.m. at the zoo’s Elephant Trails.
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