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Wildside Explores Elephant Training & Management

Learn the truth about elephant training and management in the United States. This article is a 1995 update of similar articles published in: International Zoo News & The Journal of the Elephant Manager's Association Volume VI Number 2.

Elephant Management in the United States:
The Evolution of Change (Part 1 of 7)


With the rise of Environmentalism has come the awareness of a need to evolve in our captive management of elephants. Zoological institutions, circuses, private collections, and other animal facilities have been faced with attacks and public outcry regarding the care and presentation of captive animals of all types.

Unfortunately during this evolution to change, which will eventually affect all animal management, the more traditional elephant management styles have been put on the defensive. This seems to have stemmed from the unfavorable light the media has placed them in over the past few years,* and by a newer style of elephant management being promoted as a panacea in response to public pressure and personal views. There is no quick fix for anything. It is time to be proactive instead of reactive. However, the most current trend seems to have been prompted by a reaction.

The prevailing question raised and being debated within the Industry seems to be which system to use with elephants. Two systems**, "Protected Contact" and "Free Contact" are considered to be opposed to one another. "Protected Contact" is defined to be a system where the handlers/keepers are not in the same enclosure or proximity with the elephant; they remain outside of the enclosure and outside the social structure of their animals. Separated by barriers, the animal behavior is controlled through various techniques such as restraint or operant conditioning. Both positive and negative reinforcement are used.

The animal is conditioned to move toward a target and to respond to various cues (physical and verbal) and conditioned reinforcers***. This type of program development came from captive marine mammal training and management techniques stemming with a focus on operant conditioning.

"Free Contact" is considered to be a traditional method of training which evolved from elephant management techniques used with the Asian species for about the past 5,000 years. Handlers/keepers/trainers are in the same enclosure with the elephants. They work in close proximity to them, sustain physical contact with the animals, and maintain a social position in the herd. Behavior is controlled by psychological means, manipulation, and restraint. Both positive and negative reinforcement are used. The elephant is conditioned to move away from the Ankus or Elephant Hook and to respond to various cues and conditioned reinforcers.

Skill levels in numerous areas are required to manage elephants in both systems. If you are not familiar with training or elephant management the subjective viewpoint of "good & bad" is probably a "black & white" outlook. There are skilled (good) and unskilled (bad) trainers in each type of system, but the bad or unskilled get the most attention or press. Unfortunately there are good and bad days for even the best trainers and elephants.

To be successful the programs should have people who can read the smaller nuances in animal behavior, understand the species as a whole, discern the individual animal needs and peculiarities, and comprehend and be able to develop training skills. In addition, sensitivity and understanding of herd dynamics is a must. Unfortunately that seems to be the ideal situation and both systems do not always met the bill at creating an environment where this is possible or by obtaining people whose abilities or the skills to acquire them.

The success issue compounds when trainers are brought in to integrate existing programs to "Protected Contact" with no first hand knowledge or experience of elephants in "Free Contact" relationships. It also compounds when "Free Contact" trainers are expected to grasp the behavior theory of "Protected Contact" and utilize it after years of operating differently and without both factions developing and using the best from both areas of expertise.

With the death/injury rate of elephant handlers being high compared to the numbers engaged in the profession, elephant training/handling is a vocation considered to be one of the most risky operations in the United States. So it is no surprise that facilities that handle elephants are concerned and searching for alternatives.

Captive management is not made any easier by the status of the elephant in the wild. Other difficulties include the captive breeding and birthing challenges which need to be addressed. This is especially critical since the captive genetic pool is so small and the viable breeding population is quickly aging. It is extremely urgent that some sort of cooperative program be developed to address this issue.


The Industry question that seems to remain unanswered is the one of; How can "Protected Contact" and "Free Contact" interface to allow breeding based on the recommendations made by the Species Survival Plan (SSP)? If breeding and reproduction are a priority, and several systems are being used within the Industry, it is a necessity that this small captive genetic base be utilized despite the difference in handling. How can this be accomplished? It seems that shades of both systems need to be used. Perhaps adapting a new system under a different name would allow this to be accepted more readily and could facilitate or motivate more cooperation and interfacing between professionals from both systems. Neither management system is the sole answer, but both are steps toward managing larger groups of elephants and both systems have their strengths and weakness'.

Controlled Contact vs. Uncontrolled Contact are terms I prefer to use with the management of elephants instead of all the current titles given in the industry. You either have control or you do not. There have been injuries and incidents in both "Free Contact" and "Protected Contact" that have occurred due to a lack of behavioral control. Also, in management of the elephants it appears that some animals do better in one system while others do better in another. Safety and a high degree of husbandry care are critical factors for consideration in elephant management but so is reproduction. The zoological industry is going to have refine elephant management further to address breeding across systems and the related challenges of successful birthing. (i.e. Insure both the mother and offspring survive; this would also include integration into the herd structure.)

Both types of elephant programs seem to have the same interests. The shades of interest are what differ. All are concerned with the health and safety of their personnel and animals, public image, and with procedures and liabilities. Not all of those concerns are addressed depending on the facility, financial resources, experience of personnel, and the individual characteristics of the elephant collection.

The advocates of the "Protected Contact" programs seem to mainly verbalize concerns focused on human safety, liability, inconsistencies in handling, and public opinion. While supporters of the "Free Contact" programs seem to place their focal points on concerns regarding animal husbandry care and breeding, tradition, and the educational and emotional impact the close contact with their animals provides to the public.

So although both systems have their difficulties and associated risks, the common goals are to properly control and maintain the elephants in their care in the most optimum manner. How is this defined? Perhaps it is determined by the success in day to day operations.


After having participated in both types of management systems with elephants there are some realistic gauges of the care afforded in a collection. physical and psychological health can be measured by answering specific questions.

  • In a high stress situation will the animal rely on the trainer for guidance and respond? If not, are there realistic steps to deal with the animal/situation?
  • Is daily husbandry care are reality? How do the elephants look? Are they clean and fit? Do they have well cared for feet, nails, tails, skin, ears, and tusks?
  • What about veterinary concerns? Can blood draws, fecal, and urine samples be done on a daily basis if needed?
  • Is their diet appropriate for health and breeding? Do they have tooth problems or edema?
  • If the elephant is injured, can they be restrained or treated without drugs or chemical immobilization? If they fall or are knocked into a moat, how quickly can the situation be resolved?
  • If there is a human (handler or member of the public) accident, have actual drills been carried out to test safety response procedures? Is there a backup plan?
  • If the animals are in prime breeding age, are they being bred? How can both systems, be used for breeding and can they cross over?
  • Are the elephants fit for their role? Do they have ample activity or novelty in their day to occupy them?
  • Are the elephants amiable at performing their tasks? Do they solicit attention and greet their caretakers/handlers/trainers?

Elephant Management & Elephant Training Part Two

Diana L. Guerrero, author of this series, is an animal behavior consultant and animal training coach with extensive experience in many areas of the animal world. Guerrero has worked with elephants in both protected and free contact.


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