"There are two things you can make an elephant do, run away or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do a number of amazing things."
- Jay Haight, Oregon Zoo
Earlier this week, I shared some news out of Toronto Zoo. It was interesting stuff… but it was by no means the biggest zoo news to break that day. That story would have been the news that Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has decided to drop its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The primary reason given for this rather dramatic break was the ongoing conflict between Pittsburgh and the accrediting body over its elephant program.
Now, I grant you, Pittsburgh’s elephant program has always struck me as a little… odd. At their off-site conservation facility, keepers used specially trained dogs to herd their elephants, a practice that AZA has long frowned upon. Pittsburgh, in turn, didn’t appreciate being told what to do or how to manage their animals, a frustration that many facilities have felt at AZA for varying reasons. The dog issue, however, was simply masking one of the biggest controversies in the zoo community – Free Contact? Or Protected?
At many zoos, the standards of what animals you work with directly – going into the enclosure with – and which you do not are pretty uniform for many species. You go in with tortoises. You do not go in with tigers. There are some animals, however, which are kind of a grey area. And one very big, very grey area has been elephants.
Elephants have a much longer history in captivity than almost any other zoo animal, and elephant training was going on for thousands of years before the phrases “positive reinforcement” or “bridging” was ever coined. They were used for logging, they were used for transportation, they were used for pageantry, and they were used for war. And for all of those thousands of years, elephants were trained in the style that we call Free Contact – keepers walked among the elephants, working with them with no barriers.
The problem is that elephants – so big, so powerful, so intelligent – can also be so deadly. Elephants have always been the leading cause of death for zookeepers, simply because unlike a lot of other potentially dangerous animals (bears, big cats), we work with them directly. An elephant, even a very well trained one, can have a bad day, or a sudden panic attack, or some other stressor that makes it unpredictable and dangerous (and that doesn’t even include the dangers of musth). Even an accidental hit from an animal that size can have bad consequences. I’ve been in an enclosure with adult African elephants with nothing but a rake and shovel. The entire time, all I could think of was, “Here is an animal that could, if it so decided, use me for a loofah.”
Keeper fatalities are obviously a tragedy to be avoided, so recently many zoos have begun switching over to the system called Protected Contact, where the keepers train and manage the elephants from outside the enclosure, same as they would a tiger, gorilla, or polar bear. The safety benefit is obvious – you can’t be harmed by an animal if it can’t touch you. AZA requested that facilities with elephants make the transition towards going to Protected Contact.
Not everyone liked it. Some keepers felt that separating themselves from their elephants, even if only across a simple barrier, cut off their connections with the animals and thereby lowered the elephant’s relationships with their human caretakers. Others felt that elephants trained FC would be unable or stressed out by the transition to Protected Contact. Sometimes, the elephants were okay, but it was the keepers who had trouble learning. And some keepers denounced the whole thing as only being done for PR, and not for the elephants.
Elephant keepers and trainers have, for centuries, used a device called an ankus, or goad (many keepers prefer to call them “guides”), to assist with training. Essentially, it serves as an extension of the keeper’s arm and is used to direct the animal. Typically, there is a curved hook at one end, giving the ankus yet another name – “bull hook.” Used improperly (as unfortunately some trainers have done), the ankus can be used to inflict pain on an elephant to force it to comply with a command. Accusations of elephants being harmed with bull hooks have followed circuses for years, contributing in part to Ringling Brothers’ recent decision to phase out traveling elephant acts.
I’ve seen keepers work elephants while carrying a simple guide (seldom even having a hook) and never have seen one used in a manner to inflict pain. Accusations of elephants being beaten or torn persist, however, so many zoos have not wanted to put keepers in a position where they share space with elephants to counter any claim from any activists suggesting such abuse occurs. To many elephant keepers, however, this comes across as management pandering to uniformed, inexperienced activists rather than doing what the keepers feel is best for the animals.
For myself, I support Protected Contact with elephants. I believe Free Contact had a much more important role in the past when zoos would house single elephants, sometimes a pair, and that social contact with the trainers was much more important to the animals. Today, the emphasis is on placing elephants and other zoo animals in more socially appropriate groups, and they should get their socializing primarily from other elephants. Furthermore, the safety aspect can’t be ignored.
I hope that Pittsburgh Zoo comes to rethink their position and rejoin AZA at some point. I’m sure that they feel that their current elephant management strategy is in the best interest of their elephants, and that it is for that reason that they’ve resisted calls to change. I believe that well-meaning, well-experienced, and well-informed people can come to differing viewpoints on this and on other issues. I also feel, however, that it is important for different facilities to work together to come up with a vision for animal care that provides the best possible lives for the animals that call their zoos home.