Ever wondered how we keep our Asian elephants in tip-top shape? There’s a lot of work that goes into taking care of these giants – from bathing to exercising to conducting simple veterinary procedures. Before we can do any of these things, though, we need to have the elephants’ cooperation. So we train our elephants to cooperate with their keepers: in other words, the elephants learn to help their keepers help them!
All About Rewards: Training Our Elephants
We train our elephants using a system called operant conditioning. It may sound complicated, but it’s really very simple: desired behaviors are rewarded (positive reinforcement) while undesirable behaviors are not. Rewards include things like food treats, verbal praise and enrichment items.
Using rewards helps build positive relationships between our elephants and their keepers – relationships that are absolutely essential to good elephant care. See Getting Ready for Baby (elephant, that is!) for more details.
Our keepers work with the elephants, training them to voluntarily participate in their daily care routine. Since our elephants and keepers are usually separated from each other by barriers, the animals learn to move over to certain “access doors” for common procedures (like lifting their foot near a “foot panel” so their keepers can perform daily foot care). The elephants are also trained to cooperate with regular veterinary procedures (like having blood drawn) as well as less-frequent ones (like having an ultrasound). And they also learn how to move between their indoor home and their outdoor habitats at River's Edge.
In the end, all that training is well worth it: our elephants cooperate in their daily care routine.
Keeping Busy: Daily Care of Our Elephants
How do our elephants spend their days? Here’s an example of some of the things that keep them – and their keepers – busy:
- Baths – Anybody have a really big bar of soap? At least once a week, our elephants head to a special shower stall to get cleaned up. They often lie down or stretch out (rear legs bent, front legs extended) so their keepers can hose off and scrub their backs (elephant exfoliation!)
- Oral hygiene – No, our keepers don’t use elephant-sized toothbrushes, but they do take good care of our elephants’ teeth (including the bull’s tusks and the females’ tushes, a smaller version of a tusk). Keepers inspect the animals’ mouth and teeth daily, and trim the tusks and tushes on a regular basis (which helps prevent the elephants from injuring themselves or each other).
- Foot care – It might not be a spa pedicure, but it’s close! Every day our keepers inspect the elephants’ nails, cuticles, and pads to make sure they’re in excellent shape.
- Weigh-in – Talk about tipping the scales! Every day we weigh our elephants to monitor their overall health and growth rates, and also to track pre-natal weight gain on the pregnant cows.
- Routine veterinary checks – An ounce of prevention is worth, well, several tons of cure! To keep track of our elephants’ overall health, we collect and analyze blood and urine samples. We also collect blood samples on a weekly basis to monitor hormone levels which helps with breeding efforts.
- Exercise – They might not do yoga, but our elephants get plenty of exercise. Outside, they have the opportunity to run around, swim, even play in a waterfall. Indoors, they get the chance to exercise when they do things like play with “toys” and take baths.
To learn more about how our elephants exercise and have fun throughout the day, check out Enriching our Elephants.