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Endangered Species & Wild Animals

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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. Read this elephant training & elephant management article series from the beginning.

Elephant Management in the United States:
The Evolution of Change (Part 2 of 7)


In each system, there are drawbacks and benefits. How can the two benefit from each other? It appears that each system has strong points. In an ideal world those strengths would be utilized for the benefit of the collection and all those involved with captive management. Why not strive for that now rather than wait for public pressure or other critical situations to arise and again be put on the defensive? Let's explore both systems.

"Free Contact" trainers at their best, have a wealth of knowledge about their animals and the species. It is a necessary skill to pay attention to nuances if they are to remain alive and keep control of their animals in stress situation. Most have "back-up" trainers versed in emergency procedures to cover in the case of unforeseen difficulties. Training in the "Old School" required working around the animals without verbal interactions or other distractions to get in the way of them paying attention to these nuances.

Many trainers used stories or scenarios to teach the apprentice how to comprehend the subtle signs animals give. From there, the apprentice could slowly be integrated into a more active role in handling, conducting rides, or perhaps training. Schedules were often varied, for unpredictability and safety reasons, and the degree of skill acquired depended on the individual and who they apprenticed with. Most animals give ample warning of the intent to aggress or of possible fear reactions. The more astute the human apprentice became at noticing and predicting possible triggers, the better the chances of survival and the well-being of all involved.

In zoological facilities, keepers were historically viewed as little more than animal janitors. In many facilities elephants were housed individually and training was not a priority. Keepers were not often required to be in life or death situations due to past elephant keeping practices and ordinarily did not receive guidance in learning how to read those nuances of behavior critical to training success. At that time there was no real need to.

Now keepers are fulfilling numerous roles that require skills in many areas. People entering the field today have the intent to enter into keeping as a career. They usually are academically versed in theory and trends with some having acquired practical skills as apprentices at the same time.

Each sector of the wild and exotic animal field have skills that served their purpose and that were appropriate for certain applications. As the Zoological Industry evolves more of these skills will need to be integrated. In this evolution of knowledge and awareness, there were techniques developed for behavior modification. Clinically tested (and manipulated) these techniques began to be applied in other avenues or uses such as animal training. They materialized in the marine mammal community and then became more known throughout the terrestrial animal training community and became the trend.

Unfortunately as the pendulum swung from one side to the other, adapting those techniques was to the exclusion of some of the more traditional and more innovative techniques developed from years of experience with particular species. There is new energy, dedication, and drive entering our spheres daily. There are many innovative and cooperative ideas which could be good if utilized. To get to the next step all these skills and people need to be integrated.

Elephant Management & Elephant Training Part Three

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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