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Shanthi, the National Zoo's Musical Elephant, Plays the Harmonica!

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Published on May 1, 2012

When the elephant keepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo hear the sound of a harmonica, it's not the radio they've left on. Instead, it's the Zoo's 36-year-old Asian elephant, Shanthi, who, unsolicited, has a propensity for coming up with her own ditties using whatever instruments the keepers have provided. These include harmonicas, horns and other noisemakers. The Zoo has captured some of Shanthi's most recent capriccios on this video.

The keepers provided the instruments after they noticed that Shanthi, more so than the Zoo's two other elephants, likes to make noise with objects. According to keepers, she will use her trunk to cover anything with a hole in it and blow until it makes a sound—and will often coax the objects to get different types of sounds from it. She taps objects with her trunk and flaps her ears against objects that make noise. Now they give the melodious pachyderm noisemakers as a form of enrichment.

Shanthi is the mother of the Zoo's 10-year-old calf, Kandula. Asian elephants are endangered in the wild, where 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants still live in the forests of south and southeast Asia. Visitors to the Zoo can watch an elephant demonstration, which sometimes includes Shanthi's musical skills, at 11 a.m. most days at the Zoo's Elephant Trails.

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