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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 5 of 7)


Even the facilities face some dilemmas. At the moment it appears that there is more safety, but there are more areas for a person to be injured. For instance, one facility has mesh which extends from the floor to the ceiling. There is access to the keeper pathway and if the person is not attentive and is grabbed, they could be pulled in with no avenues of escape. In several institutions, the keeper pathways are too narrow; one facility no longer allows keepers down part of the pathway.

In day to day management, it is important that keepers have verbal and visual contact with one another. Most designs do not allow this. If an animal has serious health problems will it be able to be handled with less risk to the animals than it was before? Can access to the animal be gained? What if the animal requires movement to heal; can they be motivated to move? These problems need some creative solutions. The practical solution is to make sure there is an Elephant Restraint Chute (ERC).

Many shows or performances can be adapted to this system. As the public changes their perceptions and awareness during this environmental movement they will be happy to watch husbandry displays, or herd activities. Facilities need to consider that there will be less revenue from special contracts, promotional events, media appearances, and rides. There still is no substitute for a close encounter of the wild kind. People remember them for a lifetime and those encounters create a first hand concern for the species because people have met and been impacted by an individual (with a name and personality) representing that species.

Several facilities have had difficulty with the transition due to design/construction errors. Some of these included danger zones keepers could not escape from or could not operate from, escalating cost factors by overkill or corrections after completion, no emergency override systems, and focal areas of training which, when not regulated, contribute to conspecific aggression and displacement in competition for attention.


Challenge areas seem to be consistent. The following areas need attention and development in order to establish a good working elephant program. With specific emphasis on "Protected Contact" programs these areas include:


Practical knowledge or ability to learn and apply techniques; Elephant species, herd dynamics, and individual characteristics; Operant conditioning practical techniques and some technical; Staff training, evolutionary training for the entire staff (includes curatorial or other managers).


Training consistency in commands, criteria, strategic planning; Weekly interfacing between all staff involved; Avenue for presenting ideas such as a forum or mastermind groups; Cross communication with other facilities.


Five to ten year strategic plan to include; Program evaluation, goals for staff, animals, training, facility, husbandry, shows, and other related items. Timeline for development, facility design, prioritizing of Elephant Restraint Chute, visual and audio communications, delineation of phases, and finances. A clear chain of command and related roles.


Motivation of staff, consistency of applications, program evolution, staff evolution, labor intensity, husbandry, emergency procedures (animal and human), dietary.


Since it takes about ten years to really assess whether an elephant program is successful the end of this decade should result in some data to support and evaluate the pros and cons of the "Protected Contact" systems. Each one differs slightly from the others.

To date it would seem that a scientific approach to document this change has been lacking. There is little data comparing behavior criteria and performance levels prior to and after conversion from "Free Contact" to "Protected Contact."

Other important data to collect would be assessments of herd dynamic shifts after conversion, and timeline standards for development or implementation of new programs and the behavior acquisitions associated with the conversion.


With the current trend of habitat destruction, environmental abuse, public and media pressures, and public awareness, it is imperative that this industry change faster that it has historically. Unfortunately, until the reactive ripple stops, change and evolution will be slow. Both systems individually are clearly not the definitive answer to elephant management. So the question is not only how can the systems of elephant management integrate for the optimal benefit of facilities, staff, and animals? But will the Industry as a whole sift through the chaff to get to the next level of management which is beyond what either system can offer on its own?

Elephant Management & Elephant Training Part Six

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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