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Elephants are highly intelligent animals and they learn new things very quickly. This combined with their strength and agility has meant that in the past they have been trained for human benefit and entertainment. At Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos we train the elephants for their own physical and mental well-being. By training certain behaviours and activities, the elephants actually help us look after them as best we can. There are a variety of methods and tools used to manage and train elephants. At Taronga there are four very important training tools that we use:
A target pole consists of a small water buoy or tennis ball attached to a wooden stick and is used as a point of reference for the elephant. The elephant is expected to move towards the water buoy (the “target”) and touch it with the appropriate part of their body. For example, to train an elephant to raise its foot, the target is positioned above the elephant’s foot. When the elephant raises its foot to touch the target pole, it is given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the target is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue. Instead just the verbal command “foot” is given and the elephant understands to raise its foot.
An elephant guide is a tool that is used to teach, guide and direct an elephant. In the past, some people have called this an ankus or a bullhook. These names are outdated and do not provide an adequate explanation for the proper use of the tool. Ankus is a term used to describe the elephant handling tool used in many Asian countries, which do not resemble our guides. The term bullhook was coined over 100 years ago by circus men who called all elephants, regardless of sex, bulls.
Elephant management has evolved since then, and its tools and their uses have evolved as well. The elephant guide consists of a blunt hook mounted on one end of a plastic or wooden shaft. The ends on the hook are tapered to a point so that the elephant can feel the pressure of the guide through their thick skin, but blunt enough so that the hook does not scratch or penetrate the skin. The design of the guide allows the elephant to be directed with either a pushing or pulling motion. The elephant guide adds a physical and visual cue to a verbal request. To train an elephant to raise its foot using an elephant guide, the keeper places the guide behind the foot. The keeper then touches the back of the foot with the guide and using only slight pressure, uses the guide to prompt the elephant to lift its foot. When the foot reaches the desired level, the elephant is praised and given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the guide is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue, as the elephant responds to the verbal request alone.
Each keeper has a pouch filled with treats that they carry around their waist when training. The treats are simply bite size pieces of fruits and veggies that the elephants enjoy. The treats are given to the elephants as positive reinforcement. When the elephant responds correctly to a request by the keeper, they are rewarded with a treat. They are also rewarded with treats purely for their good behaviour and attitude. This is a very powerful tool that is used in elephant training, and it provides the opportunity for all interactions with the keeper and elephant to be positive. The elephants are happy to co-operate with the keepers, as they are getting something they desire in the process.
By far the most powerful tool that keepers can have when training elephants is their positive relationship with the elephant. Having a genuine, loving relationship with the elephants is crucial to working with them successfully. Elephants are very social and affectionate, and respond well when the training is positive and fun for both the keepers and elephants. The elephants also thrive on the verbal praise and tactile affection given by the keepers. A kind word and gentle touch by the keeper go a long way towards building a trusting and caring relationship. Our goal is to have the elephants participate in training because they want to. A positive relationship is the key to making this happen.