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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 4 of 7)

Photos Copyright © By Monty Sloan & Jill Moore Porter


Animal interpretations and reactions have not been documented. It would be interesting to have someone conduct formal behavioral study of a herd in "Free Contact" before the transition to "Protected Contact." What has been observed is that these captive raised social misfits are suddenly cut off from the familiar. Little or restricted contact with their human "herd" members, less novel experiences or exposure to new ones, lack of motivation and space to obtain enough movement required for their physical well-being are some of the concerns. Suddenly, they have to restructure their surrogate herds and rearrange their social group. Some animals benefit from this, some do not. There is still the question of husbandry and health care, can it be maintained in an optimal manner?

In each system the animals enjoy the activity and diversions provided by human interactions. Part of the challenge in the transition is that these animals who have been raised, nurtured, and socialized by humans are suddenly ostracized. This is an important and difficult transition of both humans and the animals involved.

One "Protected Contact" program has elephants who constantly solicit attention from the keepers. They vocalize, offer behaviors, group around keeper gatherings, and solicit tongue tactile. Unfortunately, although an important greeting and socializing behavior, tongue tactile by keepers is not permitted. For those not familiar with elephants, many times when they greet one another they will extend their trunks into each others mouths, touching the tongue or mouth (tongue tactile). Sometimes they will touch each others teats. This is often accompanied by a rumbling sound emitted as a greeting.

The human equivalent of this greeting has often been touching the tongue with the hand. Some handlers will also grab the teat as an affectionate gesture. Elephants often respond with the trunk held up to the mouth of the handler, while rumbling, by offering a raised foot, or in various situations by offering the rump, which are considered to be a submissive gestures. To not be able to greet their human caretakers after years of doing so seems illogical due to the social implications and their importance.

Animal observations, on the positive side, seem to allow for the opportunity for the animals to explore being more creative or innovative. These luxuries or variations in behavior have often been considered too risky to be accepted in a "Free Contact" situation. In a "Free Contact" situation, deviations in requests from the trainer can be precursors to aggression. Because of the large gap in ability levels of handlers it is safer to not allow these deviations.

Knowledgeable and experienced handlers can read the animal behavior and determine if the animals are being naughty or just an elephant. Being innovative and bright, animals put into "Protected Contact" often offer variances in behavior. One individual elephant encountered has an extensive training background, few trainers, and has experienced a high degree of stability all her life. During shows she will often chain+ behaviors to add variations to her performances, since most of her handlers are too predictable and don't request high degrees of performance from her. When given the opportunity she offers new behaviors or vocalizations to see if the trainer will respond.

In regard to the individual animal needs, it appears that there are some animals more suited to each system. In the four or so personality variations observed in different group dynamics, several seem more suited to a "Free Contact" situation. These individuals are dependable, methodical, and solicit human interactions highly.

Those more suited to a "Protected Contact" situation appear to have syntax difficulty, they are slow to learn, insecure or fearful,, or have a predisposition to aggression. They could be more successfully managed in a situation where new stimuli and novel experiences would be minimal and where they could progress at their own rate with no serious repercussions on the public, staff, or their well-being.

Due to the historical number of handlers killed by bulls, and a lack of personal experience with them, it would probably be best to manage them in a "Protected Contact" situation. Elephants in captivity who have never received training or interactions with humans can also benefit from this method of management. It is an option that allows them to receive husbandry care and psychological stimulation where it might not have been available otherwise. In fact, "Protected Contact" was originally designed ONLY to handle bull elephants and untractable cows.

In "Free Contact" behaviors and commands were traditionally handed down from trainer to trainer. In the transition from "Free Contact" to "Protected Contact" it would facilitate a quicker and more successful transition if those commands, cues, and criteria for the behavior were passed on. Unfortunately, it seems that in the transition this has not been a priority.

From the program operational view, there is a lack of interfacing between all programs. There are currently no standardized commands in "Protected Contact" and no regular communication between those programs. "Free Contact" had similar problems some time back and as a result established a suggested standardizing of commands around twelve years ago.

The transition, interfacing between programs, and the evolution of elephant management would benefit greatly if commands were standardized and documented. At this stage even the bridging**** criteria is different!; some are used as a release, eliminating the standard verbal "alright" command; while others are used as conditioned reinforcers, and some for both! A bridge in "Free Contact" is a verbal "Good." (Whistles are used as a bridge due to the ease of handling and availability in "Protected Contact." The ideal use for the whistle is as a conditioned reinforcer with "alright" remaining as the release to avoid confusion.)

Elephant Management & Elephant Training Part Five

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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