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COOPERATION BETWEEN ZOOS & SANCTUARIES
When Detroit Zoo made the controversial decision to send two Asian elephants to ARK 2000, they also made
Detroit Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Ann Duncan, was with us when Winky, the older of the two elephants, died; and continues to assist with the ongoing foot care which is necessary for Wanda, who is now 54 years old
Last week, Dr. Duncan, Mary Wulf, one of Wanda’s keepers from Detroit, and Alan Roocroft, world renowned consultant on elephant foot care, visited Wanda and evaluated her condition. Wanda loved the extra attention and the doting care of her old friend, Mary, who kept her engaged in the protected contact training “game”. Mary is one of the best at enticing elephants to submit to necessary examinations, and Wanda rumbled and chirped through the process. At one point, Gypsy wandered over to share Wanda’s attention, and Wanda actually pushed her out of the way.
The health of the older elephants who have chronic medical problems is a daily concern for the elephant staff and supervisors at ARK 2000. Collaboration with specialists from progressive zoos like Detroit provides welcome information and educational benefits for all of us.
THANK YOU, MARY, DR. DUNCAN, ALAN AND ALL THE STAFF AND VOLUNTEERS FROM
Progressive Zoos and Protected Contact Management
Risky business of keeping captive animals
Wild at heart — at least in part
By Scott LaFee, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Monday, December 21, 2009 at midnight
Eduardo Contreras / Union-Tribune
Brian Greco, an elephant trainer at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, checked the mouth of Umngani, a female African elephant. The park keepers use a training technique called protected contact to train the elephants.
Sean M. Haffey / Union-Tribune
Meredith Potter, senior animal care specialist at SeaWorld, fed polar bear Charley.
Twenty years ago, the most dangerous job in America was tending elephants. Keepers were three times more likely to die on the job than coal miners, who had the second most dangerous occupation. Between 1989 and 1991 alone, six elephant keepers were killed at work, prompting zoo officials across the country to ask three questions: Should they continue with the time-honored, hands-on management of elephants? Should they limit handling to situations in which the elephants were safely restrained? Or should they cease keeper-elephant contact altogether?
None of the options was ideal. The first was clearly hazardous. “Lots of people were getting injured; lots of people were getting killed,” said Jeff Andrews, a veteran elephant keeper at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The second option was largely impractical: Only a handful of zoos at the time even had the means to effectively restrain an adult elephant, which can weigh up to 12 tons. The third choice wasn’t actually possible: Healthy, happy elephants require daily care and maintenance.
Most zoos in the early 1990s opted to stick with tradition. Keepers continued to work up close and personal with elephants, with little protection beyond their own wits and a hooked stick called an ankus. The method was known as “free contact.”
“Free contact derived from thousands of years of close work with Asian elephants,” said Andrews. “These were working elephants and they were treated a lot like horses. It was believed they needed to be broken, with discipline and dominance established (by the keeper). It wasn’t an official or standardized approach. It was just something that evolved over time, though elephant keepers basically did things the same way.”
Injury and the risk of death were considered part of the job.
“When you’re working with an animal that’s 50 times larger, people are going to get hurt, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not,” said Andrews.
It would take the challenge of caring for another large and potentially lethal mammal to change the ways things were done.
In the wild, orcas or killer whales are not considered to be a threat to humans. In captivity, they can be, though their record of injuring and killing keepers or trainers pales in comparison to elephants. “Whales are big and smart and you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do,” said Bill Winhall, an assistant curator of mammals at SeaWorld San Diego. “When you’re in the water with them, it’s good to remember that and always pay attention.”
Like zookeepers, the animal handlers at SeaWorld and similar places were keen to find safer ways of dealing with orcas, dolphins, walruses and other big marine mammals. It wasn’t just about training for shows; it was about basic care and maintenance.
“Back in the 1970s, if you just wanted to take a blood sample from a killer whale, you needed to lower the pool, put the whale in a sling and then use 10 to 12 people plus a crane to hoist the animal out of the water for the procedure,” said Gary Priest, who once worked at SeaWorld and is now curator of animal behavior for the San Diego Zoological Society.
At SeaWorld and elsewhere, though, a new concept was bubbling toward the surface. Perhaps an animal’s behavioral training could be used to make routine care easier and safer. Killer whales, for example, were already trained to flop down on poolside platforms during shows, perhaps they could be induced to stay there long enough and quietly enough for minor medical procedures like blood collection. The answer proved to be a resounding yes. Indeed, Priest said it took just seven days to teach the first whale to calmly present its tail fluke for an injection, a process that began with desensitizing pin pricks using car keys.
“Things got much easier and more relaxed after that,” said Priest, who helped bring the approach — dubbed “protected contact” — to the San Diego Zoo and its entirely different menagerie.
Protected contact is now standard operating procedure in most major zoos and places where humans must work closely with potentially dangerous animals, but the transition from free contact did not come easily or fast, either for humans or zoo animals. For one thing, skeptics insisted that the only way to exert control over an elephant was to make sure it knew who was boss.
“Free-contact elephant keepers are a bit like jet fighter pilots,” said Priest. “Neither believes anything bad will happen to them. Both have incredible self-confidence. If you work with elephants, that’s a good thing. You’ve got to have a lot of confidence and always show it because if you don’t, the animals can tell and you’re at greater risk.”
Intelligent creatures like whales and elephants are always testing the status quo, challenging the hierarchy to see who’s in charge, keepers say. Acts of insubordination may be subtle: a slight nudge or a slowness to respond, for example. Or they may be overt, such as a whale pulling a trainer underwater or scraping them along the bottom of the pool. If the keeper or trainer isn’t prepared, quick to act with the appropriate response, an elephant or whale may push things even harder, perhaps catastrophically so.
“These are wild animals and they always will be,” said Winhall. “An animal like a polar bear is an apex predator with a matching temperament. It will sit patiently next to an ice hole for, like, forever just waiting for a seal to pop its head out. That’s something to remember when you’re working with them” or any other creature capable of causing harm.
Happy to learn
In free contact, any sign of disobedience or rebellion in an animal is unacceptable. There can be no mistakes of behavior by either the animal or keeper because there’s almost no safety margin. Protected contact, on the other hand, recognizes that everybody, even whales, elephants and other creatures, have bad days.
“The animals are voluntary participants,” said Priest. “We don’t make them do things they don’t want to do. There aren’t negative consequences.”
It took time for both San Diego zookeepers and elephants originally trained with free-contact methods to learn and adapt to the new system.
“The elephants discovered that if they chose not to comply with a request, we weren’t going to go in and require compliance,” said Priest. “It was almost funny to watch the expressions on their faces when they walked away and we didn’t follow. They were like little kids who thought they had gotten away with something, only they weren’t quite sure what it was.”
In fact, said Andrews at the Wild Animal Park, the elephants probably didn’t know what to think or do. “Free contact-trained elephants are taught not to do anything until they are told to, so they tend not to really think for themselves. It took many years for the older elephants to come around and really trust us.”
In 2003, the Wild Animal Park received seven wild elephants from Swaziland, all 3 or 4 years old and all slated to be killed as part of a herd-reduction program. The Swaziland elephants were the first to be trained entirely using protected contact methods. Critics again scoffed, insisting the elephants would first need to be broken, but Andrews said they adapted to protected contact with surprising alacrity.
“Elephants are excited to learn. You can actually see the animal thinking about what it should do,” Andrews said. “Maybe they do it wrong a few times, but then they’ll do it exactly right, you respond and their eyes light up as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what he wants.’ ”
The basic learning process is called operant conditioning, a method in which voluntary responses are modified to achieve a specific behavior or outcome, usually through rewards of food or praise. The training is incremental, tiny steps called “successive approximations” that are small movements building upon each other until a full-fledged behavior is accomplished. The elephants at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park are trained to do 32 behaviors, everything from opening their mouth to lifting their feet to laying down. Each behavior makes it possible for keepers to conduct the various examinations or procedures necessary for their health without actually stepping inside the elephant’s enclosure.
The Wild Animal Park was the first zoo facility in the country to modify its elephant barrier system to accommodate protected contact methods. The new Elephant Odyssey exhibit at the San Diego Zoo is the first elephant enclosure designed strictly for protected contact. With modifications, the method appears to work for most animals.
“The nice thing about cats is they’re very food-motivated, very into meat,” said Autumn Nelson, a big cat curator at the zoo, where keepers use meat (or treat items like blood, bone marrow and chicken broth) to teach cats elemental behaviors like walking into a crate, opening their mouth or sticking out a paw for inspection when they see a particular hand gesture or hear a specific word or sound, like a whistle or click.
There are differences between species, of course. Lions respond well to training, but they’re very social animals and sometimes pay more attention to each other than to the trainer. Tigers, on the other hand, are solitary animals. They bond more slowly with zoo staff, said Nelson, but “you don’t have other animals interfering with the training either.”
Working with apes is a bit like working with people, said Greg Vicino, an animal care supervisor at the zoo. If keepers come to work grumpy or frustrated, the gorillas may assume the same mood. “They definitely pick up on cues so it’s important to always project a positive attitude.”
Much of the communication between apes and between apes and humans is visual or verbal, and sometimes quite subtle. “If a gorilla wants to be left alone, it might cough. The keeper must determine whether the signal is serious. He might need to step back, give the gorilla a moment or just end the session. One thing you don’t do is cough back.”
Keepers say protected contact helps keep captive animals closer to their natural, wild state. All of the behaviors taught to the elephants, for example, are seen in the wild, said Andrews at the Wild Animal Park. And protected contact helps keepers manage the animals even when people aren’t around.
“In the old days, elephants might be chained up at night to keep them from fighting or causing trouble,” he said. “Now they’re given free rein to wander between the barn and outdoor areas day and night, to spend time with other elephants or get some alone time. We try to let elephants be elephants. It’s better for them and us.”
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