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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 3 of 7)

Taking a look at four different "Protected Contact" programs over more than a year has raised some concerns and questions. Each program seems to face the same challenges and developmental hurdles.

One of the biggest problems facing either system is the one of staff challenges. Both systems require similar skills but applied in different degrees. Management must find ways to assist animal personnel in their evolution and acquisition of these abilities. This is not always easy since front-line staff are not always in close contact with the mangers, making it hard to get an accurate assessment, nor do they develop proficiencies at the same rate as their coworkers. Complicate this with a seniority hierarchy and you have a real frustrating mess for your workers.

In changing over from the "Free Contact" to "Protected Contact" many facilities have decided to "clear the slate" by removing existing handlers/keepers/trainers from the elephant department. Traumatic for staff and animals, this type of decision can be more of a detriment to a program than a help for several reasons. The most crucial reason is that workers have established a critical relationship with the animals in their care, the animals know them, and those staff members know the individual characteristics of those animals, and the behaviors they hold. They also have valuable skills to troubleshoot evolving health problems and how to administer proper husbandry work on the feet, tusks, temporal glands, tails, molars, and skin.

At one institution the majority of keeper staff have been there only a few years. Nuances in behavior that would have been immediately apparent to someone with more "Free Contact" elephant and training experience were not acknowledged or even discerned. Displacement activity occurring in the herd, frustration, and confusion erupted into aggressive displays between conspecifics and eventually toward a member of keeper staff.

After several months of not addressing the above scenarios, this behavior escalated into a situation where one individual elephant was displacing her aggression directly at a keeper and was actively stalking him. Although this is in a "Protected Contact" situation, the animal has distinguished she can aggress and the escalation to the level of stalking shows a lack of strategic planning and active guidance within the program. It also shows how without proper guidance and training the keeper staff are not enabled to be successful.

In the above facility, during keeper training classes, videos of elephants aggressing were shown to staff members, the behavioral signs or reasons the animals were aggressing never seemed to be explained or discussed. Strategies were/are not in existence for dealing with the situations. The particular individual had no idea why the elephant aggression was directed toward him, nor was he aware of the stalking and displacement aggression when it occurred. The individual felt unsuccessful and singled out; If he was enabled to acquire skills for reading the nuances in behavior, and taught how to reach the next level of training strategies and skills before the scenario escalated, he may have handled and processed the situations successfully. Instead he remains confused and frustrated which contribute to low morale.

This animal never had the opportunity to grab him and crush him into any of the protective barriers, however, she was successful in injuring and disabling another keeper within six months. This individual has now left the Industry and sustained a permanent disability from that incident. It also appears that a contingency plan or strategy to prevent or deal with this type of situation is still not in place.

The internal problems of this situation have further escalated to where the conspecific aggression has increased to a very dangerous level. Due to the lack of control and strategies to deal with these types of problems, animal separations and possible relocation of one of the animals are the solutions being used/considered. Solving the problems, not masking the symptoms, would be a better strategy.

Staff crave recognition for what they can do well and often will be more amiable to change if they can be instrumental in it. Many new programs do not enable staff to feel that they contribute, nor can they assist them at developing to the next skill level. In the same program this is exhibited by lack of forward movement within it. Staff does not trust management for many reasons. Finally, when things looked as if they were changing, a national magazine appeared with an article disparaging that staff. Calls and condolences from other keepers in the institution came in, as well as several from different parts of the nation. The trust that was beginning to resurface vanished instantly and the manager who wrote the article insured his staff would remain distrustful.

This type of situation shows physical symptoms within a department or facility. Staff become frustrated showing low morale, or lack of motivation. Poor facility care, husbandry care, and training progress are all affected. A quick fix cannot be done by bringing in new staff as a shot in the arm, or by relocating problem animals; the program and approach have to change.

Granted, staff difficulties seem the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Changing years of predictable methodology is not easy. New skills have to be acquired while old ones discarded. To date, the most challenging scenario is that of training front-line staff new skills, fine tuning them, and them helping them to progress from there.

Front-line staff converting to a "Protected Contact" system become overwhelmed due to factors such as lack of training experience, confusion, unclear directives or guidance, no long-term strategic planning, and a large increase of labor intensity. Management needs to understand that it is more difficult to evolve than it seems. A clear chain of command must be set up and rules applied to everyone equally. Delegation of specific roles can be done by merit or skill without affecting seniority standings if each staff member is directed and given a specific function. Individual social styles and strengths need to be properly assessed to do this effectively.

All facilities viewed, but one, were extremely short-handed. The time and labor intensity required in "Protected Contact" becomes overwhelming to staff especially when they are mandated to maintain the same efficiency. At most facilities it takes a minimum of three people to handle basic operations such as moving animals. That allows for the bare minimum to be done; add a fair size herd, exhibit, and public exhibitions and you have the recipe for designing frustrated and stressed employees. The integration of skills by front-line staff becomes necessary when you convert programs too. Not all keepers are able to acquire skills quickly. Suddenly a staff member is required to reenter school, it is uncomfortable, there is frustration, and since one individual does not have all the answers, there is the fear of the unknown. Worst of all is the separation from relationships with animals that took years to develop.

At another facility the staff has remained. They all work diligently together and strive for progress. Each member has their skills and they have worked out their perspective roles so that they function most effectively despite a seniority hierarchy. Various situations surface as they evolve in their skill levels and training, so they search and find the answers they need. Now they are ready for the next step; some require a review of basics and coaching, while others need intermediate help.

At one point, someone was being considered to be hired in as a consultant to give them the basics in a classroom setting, assess the herd, which had already been done, and check on how they are doing. Unfortunately, from observations made earlier, they were beyond that stage. Staff can handle most scenarios on their own, and just need assistance in the evolution and working situations. It is commendable management has taken an active role to provide assistance to them but there is a gap between what they need and what management thinks they need or what was sold to them as the answer. Both management and front-line staff need to work closer together to be successful.

At one facility, the absence of motivation is due to the fact that many of these individuals have experienced a lack of acknowledgment of their concerns and/or input. These range from facility design errors to herd dynamic shifts and strategies related to labor or training. If they are to buy into the programming and make it successful then shouldn't they be the cornerstones? If staff was enabled to be successful and a forum was utilized to bring all the players to the table, the end result could be phenomenal.

Elephant Management & Elephant Training Part Four

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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