Posts Tagged ‘Protected Contact’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 8, Savannah Module

by | May 3rd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is sharing her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training in this blog series.

 

 

 

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.

Keeper Jeff Kinzley gives this foot on this Elephant a pedicure every single workday. We have four full-time Elephant Keepers and four Elephants, so each Keeper does the same foot on each Elephant daily to be sure there are no cracks, thorns or other problems. The feet need to hold up 4-5 tons of Elephant.

 

 

 

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.

Keeper Gina Kinzley is taking our Elephant through a series of exercises for mental stimulation and to practice moves that might be needed for her medical care, like showing her foot. All she had to say was “switch” to get the other foot up. Note the strong barriers between her and the Elephant.)

 

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

Cheri Matthews, a long-time Animal Management volunteer, helps with another Elephant's training by delivering the treats on cue as Gina explains the process

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.

 

“I’m done? Don’t be done!” This Elephant enjoyed her training exercises so much she didn’t want them to end.

 

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.

At the end of the day our Elephants return to their barns for a snack and 3-5 hours of taking the weight off. Jeff Kinzley shows us all the features of the new HUGE barn that is now the night-time home of our male Elephant.

This is the new barn for our male Elephant that's nearly 1200 square feet. There are three large skylights, and two steel doors, one hydraulic, the other manual. The floor is about four feet of sand, with one corner of the stall sloped to about six feet. Sand is much easier on their feet, and having a slope makes it easier for an elephant to get up and down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Until then,

 

Volunteering, Zoo Ambassador Training, elephant, elephant barn, protected contact, target training, Colleen Kinzley, Jeff Kinzley, Gina Kinzley

Let Elephants Be Elephants

by | June 20th, 2011

Here at the Oakland Zoo we have strong beliefs and views on 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 on the animals part. 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 beaten to behave.

Since I am an elephant keeper, let’s talk about elephants specifically. Working with the largest land mammal on earth is definitely intimidating. People think they are gentle giants but more often they are 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 a free contact type of management.

Most often these elephants are beaten and abused, screamed at, and chained up for hours on end. There are hours of caught on tape footage from animal welfare groups of elephants being beaten for just standing and minding its own business. This is so the handler can keep the elephant in check, so that it never knows when it’s going to get hit. The reason for this abuse is so the handler can be dominant over the elephant so the handler doesn’t get killed. There is no reason for this type of management. If you have to abuse an animal just to get what you want it to do then you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Unfortunately this type of management system is still used in zoos today. Although not all of these facilities may be heavy handed, there is still always a danger of working with a 10,000 pound animal directly, which is why a keeper or circus handler is killed every year.

John Briggs, Elephant Keeper, demonstrates the use of target training with positive reinforcement. Osh presents his foot to the target and he gets a treat.

At Oakland we use a management system called Protected Contact. This style means that we only use positive reinforcement, and are always protected by a barrier whether it be spatial or with fencing. When we ask our elephants to do something they are always reinforced with treats. 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. 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 and all other types of health issues.

Oakland Zoo elephants grazing on two acres of grass. This is what you would see in the wild.

So if this protected contact management style is so much better why doesn’t everyone use it? I don’t have a good answer for this other than selfishness. Free contact handlers think since they are in the same space they have a better relationship with the elephant, and that they can accomplish more with the animal behavior wise. There’s no reason to work in the same space as an elephant if it means that I have to abuse it and it might someday snap and kill me. At our facility we can accomplish anything we train, such as foot care, blood draws, ultrasounds, etc. 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 up for hours on end, performing unnatural 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. A huge thank you to those of you that attended our Annual Celebrating Elephants Fundraiser. We have raised more than 200,000 dollars over the past fifteen years and all of the proceeds go toward world renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss’ Amboeseli Elephant Trust, protecting African Elephants through conservation and research.

On July 23, bring the family to the Oakland Zoo for Feast for the Beasts. The public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 through the door (door opens at 9:00am) will receive a ticket to place produce in the elephant exhibit! Once all the produce is in place, guests can watch the elephants goggle down grapes, watermelon, apples, lettuce, carrots, and treats. The elephant feeding is so much fun. Be sure to get to the Zoo by 9:00am to be a part of the produce spreading at the elephant exhibit.