Here at the Oakland Zoo we have a strong belief and value system when it comes to animal welfare. We do everything we can to provide our animals with what they need, including space with the appropriate substrates, social dynamics, as well as enrichment and training for both physical and mental stimuli. Everything we do takes into consideration the health and well-being of the animal as well as the safety of the keeper. Wild animals can be dangerous and in no way should be treated like a pet. We work with them in a protected contact type of management to ensure our safety and theirs. You might be thinking why does the animal need to be safe? Aren’t you the one in danger? The answer is yes. I am in danger should I walk into an enclosure and right up to an animal, but for me to be able to do that involves punishment toward the animal. If you have been to a circus before you have seen all the different animals they work with up-close and personal. This is not because the animals enjoy being in the circus and close to their handlers; this is because the animals are forced and mistreated to behave as asked.
Since I am an elephant keeper, let’s talk about elephants specifically. Working with the largest land mammal on earth is a challenge. People
think they are gentle giants but more often they are and always have the potential to be extremely dangerous. For decades these intelligent creatures have had to put up with being in the circus where their handlers have abused them into submission, beating them with what is called an “ankus” or “bullhook”. When you see the handlers inside the enclosure working directly with the elephant, this is called free contact. This management relies on negative reinforcement and punishment. The ankus, similar in look to a fireplace poker, was and is specifically designed to cause pain, and for the elephant to move away from the two sharp points of the hook. When an elephant does not comply with the asked behavior the pressure of the sharp points is increased, which often times leads to striking and clubbing with the hook. Twenty five years ago an alternative system was created.
In California, bullhooks are not used at any zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary. Instead, this alternate system is called Protected Contact. This style uses positive reinforcement, and trainers are always protected by a barrier whether it be spatial or with fencing. When we ask our elephants to do something they are reinforced with food treats and praise. This keeps us and the elephants safe. When we are training we stand outside the fence line and use target poles, which are a long piece of bamboo or rake handle with a soft tip, to target a part of the body that we need. The keepers or trainers are not dominant over the elephant, and if the elephant chooses not to participate then they have the choice to walk away from the session. Fortunately elephants are extremely food motivated and using their healthy diet they are willing to help the trainers with the care they need. Under Oakland Zoo’s management, the elephants at Tembo Preserve (http://www.tembopreserve.org/index.html) will be trained using the same management style. The Preserve will provide three heated elephant barns of approximately 26,000 square feet each, which will include various protected contact walls, with the first phase including one barn that can service up to 12 elephants, providing shelter from cold weather and facilities for veterinary care and basic husbandry training. Also, throughout the vast and spacious habitat, these training walls will be available to be able to access the elephants at a distance from the main barn when needed. Most of our training is for husbandry and health purposes, but we do fun stuff as well such as catching a
stick in the trunk or picking up an object when thrown. Fun stuff is okay as long as it is not strenuous on the elephants. A lot of the behaviors you might see in the circus such as legs stands are taxing on the joints and in the long term can cause arthritis. Although rarely observed in the wild to reach a branch or dig up a root, elephants are not meant to do these behaviors repetitively every day. At our facility we can accomplish anything we train, such as foot care, blood draws, ultrasounds, and beyond. I would rather see an elephant out on 6.5 acres grazing and browsing and interacting freely with one another, than standing next to me in fear, wearing some silly outfit, chained and confined in box cars and parking lots and performing tricks for profit. So, please support the Oakland Zoo and let elephants be elephants! Don’t go to the circus, the cruelest show on earth! Support your local non-animal circus’ such as Teatro Zinzanni and Cirque de Soleil.
SB 1062, a California bill which would ban the use of the bullhook would be the first of it’s kind. Oakland Zoo, along with Performing Animal Welfare Society, and Humane Society of the United States are working to pass this bill. Public opinion regarding the use and treatment of captive elephants is rapidly evolving in the direction of increasing protection for them. The cities of Los Angeles and Oakland have prohibited the use of bullhooks, and San Francisco has banned the use of elephants, among other animals, in performances of any kind. Numerous other jurisdictions across California and the U.S. have similar restrictions in place and more are considering such actions. Today, no county fair in California offers elephant rides (run by operators who use bullhooks), in response to community concerns about animal welfare and public safety. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus has ended their elephant acts and their last show with elephants was in May 2016. California is poised to become the first state
in the nation to end the abusive treatment of elephants caused by the use of outdated and inhumane bullhooks. SB 1062 would effectively protect elephants, while sending a strong message to the rest of the country that cruelty to elephants must not be tolerated. SB 1062 has already passed the Senate and will be heard on Tuesday, June 14th in the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee. Stay tuned on Oakland Zoo’s Facebook page for updates on the bills progress. Here’s detailed info about the bill: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/postquery?bill_number=sb_1062&sess=CUR&house=B&author=lara_<lara>.
A huge thank you to those of you that attended our Annual Celebrating Elephants Fundraiser. We have raised more than 300,000 dollars over the past twenty years and all of the proceeds go toward world renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss’ Amboseli Trust for Elephants, protecting African Elephants through conservation and research. We had the privilege of having Cynthia herself as our guest speaker at the silent auction and lecture. She gave us an update on the thriving Amboseli population of elephants and the research ATE is currently working on. The house was packed with the most people we have ever had attend and we had a record breaking year, raising over $50,000.