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In The Majesty of Elephants

by | May 10th, 2013

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Gina Kinzley is the lead elephant keeper at Oakland Zoo. We wanted to learn more about the elephants and her role with them, so we asked her some questions. Here is our interview:





Q: Oakland Zoo is having two Celebrating Elephants events in May (May 17 and 25). Why are elephants worth celebrating?

A: Elephants hold a special place in our hearts due to their majestic being, their family values, and their intelligence and emotions that they so clearly communicate.

Q: How many elephants are at Oakland Zoo?

A: We have been four African elephants, three females and one male.

Q: Where did our current elephants come from?

A:    Our three females come from different countries in Africa. They were part of a culling – or killing – of all of their family members. The three were saved as orphans and sold for profit. This was a very common practice decades ago, but is not one we currently support or endorse. Osh, our bull, was born in captivity at another facility in England. He outgrew his herd members; we were looking for a male, so we gave him a new forever home here at Oakland Zoo.

Q: How do you transport an elephant from England to Oakland Zoo?

A: We had to ship Osh overseas: he was first transported by a crane, than in a giant steel crate by a ferry, cargo plane, and then a truck from Los Angeles.

Q:  Do elephants express happiness? Are elephants “happy” at Oakland Zoo?

A:   Although we try not to anthropomorphize, or convey human emotion on our animals, we believe our elephants are leading healthy and happy lives. We provide them with lots of browse (leaves and branches) and enrichment, and a spacious facility for them to investigate and exercise. Sometimes they do make certain noises we believe are signs of contentment: they vibrate their tongue between their lips, and it sounds like a cat purring. We call it a raspberry.

Q: Oakland Zoo is well-known for how we treat our elephants. What do we do differently from other zoological institutions, and why did we decide to go that route?

A:   Since 1992, we have been managing our elephants in what we call a “protected contact training style,” which uses positive reinforcement to get the elephant to do what we ask. This means that we work with our elephants in a protected style, using barriers when training or doing foot care. More importantly, when the elephants choose to work with us, we use positive reinforcement such as praise and treats for doing what we ask. We do not have a dominant relationship over the elephant, use an ankus (a spiked rod), or use punishment and negative reinforcement, such as the case in some free-contact zoos and all circuses. We are very outspoken against the abuse and negligence of circuses toward elephants and other animals. This method of training is catching on in other zoos, as they are realizing how important this management style is, especially since keeper injuries and deaths from elephants continue to happen.

Q: Should elephants be kept in zoos?

A:   If there wasn’t ivory poaching or loss of habitat due to human encroachment, then elephants shouldn’t have to be in zoos. However, because their populations are threatened and endangered, we need to help their species survive. Having elephants in captivity is a huge responsibility, and all facilities that hold them need to provide them with everything they need: social companionship, space, browse, grass, just to name a few.

Q:  If I was concerned about elephants (or other animals) being abused in circuses or other situations, what can I do about it? What is my first step?

A:   If you have concerns about elephants being abused in circuses or zoos, you can write them a letter and express your thoughts. You can also blog, tweet, and facebook about it and make your voice heard! There are several animal activist groups you can reach out to as well. Juliette Speaks (, founded by Juliette West, is a great starting point. Juliette is a young woman trying to educate others about the peril elephants face in the wild, and their exploitation in captivity.

Q:     Do you think elephants could be taught tricks without using abusive or painful methods?

A:   Yes, absolutely. There are many good training programs out there that use positive reinforcement and can train really cool behaviors such as waving a trunk or shaking its head and flapping it’s ears. 

Behaviors such as hind-leg stands like you would see in the circus and some zoos, where an elephant sits on it’s back legs, or rest on its head with its rear legs kicked up, are completely unnecessary and unnatural behaviors for an elephant to learn, and in the long run can cause arthritis or other problems.

Q: What is Oakland Zoo doing about elephants in the circuses, and about elephants in the wild?

A:   Oakland Zoo hosts an annual Celebrating Elephants Day (May 25) where kids can learn about how we can humanely care for elephants. We also teach kids and families about the cruelty to animals found in many circuses and how we can change this behavior. Along with the daytime event, we host an evening silent auction and lecture with a guest speaker (this year’s speaker is Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Animals Welfare Society, PAWS). All of the proceeds go to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, led by renowned researcher Cynthia Moss ( Over the years, Oakland Zoo has donated over $200,000 to Amboseli Elephant Trust, helping the foundation conduct important ongoing research as well as protecting the elephants from the ivory trade.

Q: How can people get more involved?

A:   If you’d like to get involved you can help by coming to the event, help make treat boxes for the elephants and do your own behavioral observations, learn about what it takes to take care of an elephant, and then spread the word to your friends. You can find out more at

Q:  How do I become an elephant keeper?

A:   Becoming an elephant keeper takes hard work, dedication, and true knowledge of the species management and natural history. You can volunteer to help with Oakland Zoo’s animals too, including the elephants. See for volunteer opportunities.