Grooming plays an important role in ensuring animals stay clean and healthy. At Hellabrunn Zoo, this task is not only carried out by the animals themselves - keepers and veterinarians often lend a helping hand. Elephant teeth need to be brushed regularly, elephant feet filed and zebra hooves trimmed. Then there are the rhinos and warty pigs who require the odd “massage”. But to do all this, the team need to get close up – after all, animals cannot say when they have a toothache, nail pain or itching skin.

Some mornings, when it is still very quiet at Hellabrunn Zoo, Rapti, the female rhino, is given a fantastic spa treatment by her keeper Sascha Tütsch. The Rhino House team leader massages her skin, which in some places is not at all as firm as armour, and cleans it with a wet brush. Tütsch and Rapti have known each other for over 30 years and have formed a strong partnership.

“Rapti really enjoys when the sensitive areas of her skin are brushed, as she has trouble reaching these areas herself,” said Tütsch. “At the same time, it gives me the opportunity to see whether her skin has any wounds or other issues.” Thanks to the close bonds developed with the animals, the keepers at Hellabrunn Zoo can often spot when their charges are not doing so well. For example, due to her advanced age, Rapti has developed a sore on her hip due to often sleeping 

in the same position. In order to protect the wound from inflammation and annoying mosquitoes, Tütsch regularly treats it with a so-called silver spray. Of course, the female rhino can take a bath herself at any time, but she still likes to be scratched with the brush. During the treatment, it is important that Rapti can always hear Tütsch’s voice, because Indian rhinos can hear better than they can see

The Visayan warty pigs also like to be stroked. While doing this, keeper Inka Ehm also checks the hooves and, if necessary, treats any unevenness with a small nail file.

Pedicure and dental care for bull elephant Gajendra

The elephants at Hellabrunn Zoo also receive spa treatments: for example, a daily warm power-wash, as well a manicure and pedicure from the animal care team at regular intervals. The keepers use special tools for elephant wellness: an angle grinder instead of a nail file and a steel sponge instead of a toothbrush.

Like humans, elephant nails grow continuously and therefore need to be trimmed regularly. If the nails are allowed to grow too long, the animal may find it difficult to walk. Elephants are digitigrades, i.e. they naturally walk on their tiptoes. Overgrown nails can hinder the support of the cushiony fat pads under their feet, which enable the pachyderms to move almost silently despite their weight.

Thanks to daily medical behaviour training and the bond developed over the years between the elephants and keepers, this procedure can easily be carried out without the need for anaesthesia. However, it can only be carried out in protected contact, i.e. with a protective barrier between animal and the keepers.

For the optimal pedicure, an elephant must be attended by at least two members of staff. Keeper Navin Adami, for example, operates the angle grinder to grind down elephant Gajendra's nails, while another member of the animal care team showers the 5-tonne bull. As a reward for good behaviour, Gajendra will receive small chunks of bread.

“Gajendra has known me for a long time and he knows how to react to my voice and my commands. If he keeps his foot still, the procedure will be over quickly. And he also knows that I don't hurt him, I just make sure that his toenails don't tear and that he can walk well," said Adami.

After completing the foot care treatment, Adami attends to the tusks: these are cleaned regularly using a standard household steel sponge. “Brushing his teeth also serves as training for a medical emergency. If Gajendra has a toothache or other dental problems, he would be comfortable with us touching the tooth,” said Daniel Materna, elephant keeper and team leader. By the way, elephants at Hellabrunn Zoo begin to have their teeth brushed from an early age: young Otto also has his tusks brushed, which are around 20 cm long.

Zebras require anaesthesia for their pedicure

Unlike the rhinos, elephants and warty pigs, where foot care can be carried out relatively smoothly thanks to medical behaviour training, a zebra has to be anaesthetised for hoof treatment.

“Small stones or cracks in the hooves can lead to serious problems if not corrected regularly. Like humans, animals are not symmetrical and tend to place more load on one side than the other. Misalignment is quite common, especially in older animals,” said Dr Christine Gohl, senior veterinarian at Hellabrunn Zoo. “In such cases, we have to take a close look at the hooves, perhaps take an X-ray and carry out an orthopaedic hoof correction, which is carried out under general anaesthesia.”

To ensure that such treatment is only necessary in exceptional cases - and not every 6-8 weeks as with domestic horses, the ground of the zebra enclosure at Hellabrunn Zoo features a variety of substrates.

A close rapport between keeper and animal is important not only during treatment, but also in daily interaction with the animals. This ensures that if something is wrong with an animal, it can be recognised as early as possible. “Wild animals try not to show any weakness in order to avoid attracting the attention of predators in their habitat. Medical behaviour training allows us to carry out health checks and treatments for many wild species at the zoo in a stress-free manner, with the help of protected contact. The training can also be adapted to the specific needs of the individual animal.

Of course, the residents at Hellabrunn Zoo can also treat themselves to a spot of wellness at any time: many animal facilities have scratching brushes, sand areas for rolling around, scratching trees or mud baths for those that like to wallow.

Visitors can find out more about medical behaviour training for the animals at Hellabrunn Zoo by dropping by one of the daily keeper talks, where animal care staff provide an insight into their work - for example with polar bears, South American sea lions, elephants or lions.

[Translate to English:] Tierpfleger kümmert sich mit einer Bürste um die Hautpflege bei einem Nashorn.
[Translate to English:] Tierpfleger Sascha Tütsch kümmert sich um die Körperpflege von Nashorn Rapti (Copyright: Tierpark Hellabrunn / Foto: Jan Saurer)
[Translate to English:] Fußpflege beim Elefanten
[Translate to English:] Tierpfleger Navin Adami kürzt bei Elefanten-Bullen Gajendra die Zehennägel.