A backstage tour of the Elephant barns is a privilege only a few volunteers ever get and our entire ZAM class got it today. It was a thrill.
I mentioned last time that Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research, was a major force in changing the way Elephants are treated in zoos. That’s because she was the second in the country to begin using a management technique called Protected Contact. We saw this in operation today.
Trainers Have Choices
But let’s go back: today about half the zoos and all the circuses use Free Contact as a way of training and disciplining animals. With this method the trainer attempts to control the Elephant by inspiring fear with physical threats and aversion training techniques.
Want an elephant to lift her foot? Well, just jab her on her ankle with a pointed steel stick. She’ll jerk her foot away from the jab in self defense.
OR, you can simply invite the elephant to lift her foot by making it worth her while. With techniques like target training, the elephant associates making a certain move with getting a reward—food or attention—and so she wants to do it.
Now imagine you’re an elephant and you have to do a bunch of things every day. If you are in a zoo, you need to go in and out of your barn, get your feet cared for, have a bath, get mineral oil rubbed on your skin and maybe have your ears, eyes or teeth checked. If you’re in a circus, you’re going to have to walk on your back legs, balance on a ball, let some woman ride on your back.
All these things, every day, can either be pleasant or unpleasant. You can either get rewarded for doing them, or punished if you don’t. Now ask yourself, in which of these conditions would you like to live your very long life?
That’s why, in 1992, Colleen instituted Protected Contact at the Oakland Zoo, making our Zoo the second in the nation to try it. It’s been working for 20
years and now, finally, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is mandating that all accredited zoos begin using these techniques by September of 2014. From the Elephants’ point of view, it can’t happen soon enough.
What are some of the hallmarks of Protected Contact?
First, there is an Elephant-proof barrier between the Keepers and the Elephants at all times or, out in the exhibit, the Keepers maintain a distance of at least 20 feet. Our barriers are as high as the Elephants’ shoulders. Bathing and other longer procedures are done in a chute so the Keepers can move around the animal while staying protected.
Keepers use padded “target poles” and verbal cues to direct the Elephants to move. So, if they need to look at an Elephant’s eye, they might hold the pole near the side of the Elephant’s face so she can touch the pole. She’s rewarded with a whistle “bridge” and a little treat while the examination is conducted. Remember, the Keeper stays on the other of the fence.
Elephants get to decide what they do and when. Since the Keepers only ask them to do what’s in their best interest and make it worth their while with treats, they generally decide to go along with the program. In fact, while I was watching one Elephant go through some mental stimulation activities, the others waltzed up and nudged into the space, wanting attention too.
Elephants are are never chained unless they are having a complicated medical procedure. In circuses and amusement parks, Elephants are tethered by chains around their legs nearly 100% of the time they aren’t performing. Imagine spending most of your life never being able to walk more than a few feet in any direction. Imagine how that would affect your health and mental attitude.
Why don’t all trainers use Protected Contact?
Well, for one thing, it takes time and Elephants are expensive to feed. So if you want to make a profit off them, you’re not going to mess around with humane training techniques. And if you want to make sure (or try to make sure) that your performers and trainers can work closely with the Elephants, you might think they need to be afraid of you.
In fact, keepers, trainers and circus performers are killed every year by Elephants during Free Contact. Sometimes it’s just pure rage and revenge and sometimes it’s an accident. In either case, the Elephant is usually the one that is punished.
If you need proof of what an angry Elephant can do, watch this shocking video we were assigned in class, but warning: it is disturbing and very sad. http://www.spike.com/video-clips/ur3qj9/most-dangerous-animals-elephant-attack
What Can We Do?
One way to stop the for-profit entertainment industry from abusing animals is to stop buying tickets to circuses and places where people can ride on Elephants all day long. We can go to events like Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus which don’t rely on animals for entertainment. And we can teach our friends and family that it’s not OK to bully wild animals into performing. Maybe by the time they grow up, this will all be history. Greece recently banned animals from circuses, so there’s hope for the Western World.
The Zoo supports PAWS which helps animals in the entertainment industry. Both Colleen and Dr. Parrot, Executive Director of the Oakland Zoo, have testified in front of Congress to try to stop the abuses animals suffer as performers. Right now there’s a bill in front of Congress to stop the abuse of traveling animals. To learn how you can help get this important legislation passed, please go to http://www.pawsweb.org/animals_in_traveling_shows.html.
The Oakland Zoo’s Elephant care program has won the endorsement of PETA.
I’m so proud to be working in a Zoo that has such a long history of using civilized animal management techniques. And it’s not just with the Elephants, but with all our potentially dangerous animals. Keepers do bond with all their charges, but they never forget that they are working with wild animals—and they really don’t want to change them. They are perfect just as they are.
Next week, Birds and Reptiles on the African savannah.
Volunteering, Zoo Ambassador Training, elephant, elephant barn, protected contact, target training, Colleen Kinzley, Jeff Kinzley, Gina Kinzley