The 36-year-old Asian elephant plays of her own free will (except when she gets a request) and even has her own signature style. Each of her tunes ends with a dramatic crescendo that keepers wait for, knowing she's reached the end. Listeners then applaud, which Shanthi seems to enjoy, since she comes back for more.
Shanthi is a one "man" band too, since she also likes to make sounds using her body paired with other objects.
National Zoo elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman explains, "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."
Flinkman and the other clever keepers decided to give the melodious pachyderm noisemakers, including musical instruments, as a form of enrichment. It was like giving a shiny new electrical guitar to a teenager, since Shanthi was immediately interested in the objects, and especially her harmonica.
The elephant could also celebrate Mother's Day later this month, as she is mom to the zoo's 10-year-old calf, Kandula. (I haven't yet heard whether or not Kandula shares his mother's musical talents. My guess is he might, since such behaviors can have both a genetic and environmental component.)
Asian elephants only number about 30,000 to 50,000 in the wild, living in the forests of South and Southeast Asia.
Shanthi and Kandula have no such worries at the zoo. You can see them, and sometimes even catch a harmonica demonstration if Shanthi is in the mood, at 11 a.m. most days.