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Zoo Story

A zoo's manager implements new elephant-training techniques and faces stiff resistance to the change from the staff.
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Introducing change is never easy. At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the elephants caught on more quickly than their trainers

In 1991 tragedy struck at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. While working with an elephant on exhibit, one of our keepers was killed instantly when the elephant accidentally stepped on her. That fatality, combined with years of high staff turnover, intense external pressure to handle elephants differently, a traditional system that was no longer meeting our organizational needs, and the promise of a new method of elephant handling, galvanized our commitment to change the way we managed elephants, no matter what the cost.

Shortly after Pam Orsi's death, I was asked to assume responsibility for a new management program. I hired two assistants who had a strong background in using behavior modification with a variety of exotic animals. No one on our team had experience with elephants. The program's goals were to address keeper safety, the use of physical discipline, and access to the animals for veterinary care. In the beginning the keepers magnanimously accepted our work with the elephants as an amusing diversion not to be taken too seriously. But as we began to see results, we discovered that to propose significant change is to invite ridicule.

At San Diego -- and other zoos as well -- the keepers were traditionalists. They used the same training technique that had been practiced for four millennia, patterned on the social behavior of the elephant. Wild elephants live in herds led by a dominant cow, the matriarch, who is usually the oldest and most experienced member of the herd. When the matriarch moves, so do the other members of the herd, like recruits following a drill sergeant. Challenges to her authority are rare, and when they do occur the matriarch retaliates swiftly.

To control the elephants' behavior in the traditional system, trainers taught the animals to be subordinate to the trainer, just as they would be to the matriarch. The elephants learned that the trainer is dominant and not to be challenged with impunity. The trainer would assert dominance with physical discipline if necessary. The elephants' unquestioned acceptance of the pecking order was a matter of life and death for the trainer. Unfortunately, elephants do sometimes challenge the pecking order -- often with disastrous results.

Every year in the United States, an average of two keepers are killed by elephants. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that an elephant keeper is more likely to be killed on the job than either police or fire fighters are. Only the coal miner has greater occupational risk.

Obviously, it is an unusual individual who is convinced beyond any doubt that he or she can maintain control of an animal 50 times larger than an adult human. Traditional elephant training demands unflinching self-assurance. Keepers must never doubt their ability to control the elephants. To do so might telegraph doubt to the animals, inviting a challenge. In light of that strong psychological profile, it is not surprising that elephant keepers can be blind to the possibility that there may be another way of training elephants.

That's why introducing a new model of elephant keeping proved so difficult. The new training system was different from the traditional method in several fundamental ways. First, the trainers would no longer go into the elephant's enclosure. We would gain access to the elephant through a protective barrier. The animal would present various body parts on command in exchange for a reward. Second, because the trainer remained outside the elephant's enclosure, it would no longer be necessary to assert dominance over the animal. No physical discipline would be permitted in the new system. The training relied entirely on positive reinforcement and voluntary cooperation from the elephant. The elephant responded to the trainer in exchange for an apple, a carrot, or praise. (Elephants are very social animals and seem to enjoy the interaction.) If the elephant chose not to participate in a training session, the only negative consequence would be the loss of opportunity. Within days the elephants learned that important connection, and they seemed to find the new environment pleasurable.

We learned that the system worked by experimenting with our most aggressive and dangerous elephant, Chico, a 12,000-pound African bull. Except in rare instances when Chico was chemically immobilized by veterinarians, he had not received foot care in 10 years. The risk to keepers was just too great. (The leading cause of elephant mortality in captivity is from infections that begin in the foot and then become systemic -- so for elephant keepers, ensuring clean, smooth footpads is job number one.) Chico proved to be a quick study in the new positive-reinforcement system. In short order Chico learned that by touching a target with his foot he could earn apples and carrots. In that way his foot could be guided to rest in a cradle mounted on a frame inside a steel door. Through positive reinforcement, he was gradually desensitized to touch, and within six months we could reliably and safely perform pedicures on all four of his feet.

Unfortunately, right from the beginning working with the elephants was the easy part. Within months of our expanded experimental program, all four animals could demonstrate that we could reliably examine and care for their feet without going into their enclosures or using physical discipline. At that point the traditionalists stopped being magnanimous to the agents of change. The keepers began to confront us with daily resistance, telling us the new system wouldn't work, that it was stupid, that we were being unrealistic. It seemed that they spent their time trying to prove why the new way wouldn't work rather than trying to make it work.

Finally, our executive director assembled all the elephant keepers, the union shop steward, the managers, and the curators to announce that we were moving away from traditional elephant management. The keepers were confronted with a clear choice: either they could buy into the program or they could leave. As the project manager I was out on a very long limb.

We had already demonstrated that the elephants could be successfully retrained in the new method, but a truly successful program would be operated by the keepers, not behaviorists. The keepers needed to learn the skills required to do the new job. Much to their dismay, I required the entire crew to attend staff development classes, take practice exams on different aspects of animal management, and heed a newly developed elephant-keeper manual. They would be certified internally after passing, with a score of 85% or better, a 200-question final exam.

As an animal behaviorist I make my living by solving difficult behavioral problems through positive-reinforcement techniques. I have more than 20 years' experience doing this work with every kind of animal, from killer whales to diabetic primates to large carnivores. And I found myself thoroughly frustrated at trying, and failing, to identify positive incentives that would change the keepers' attitude from one of hostility to one of acceptance. It seemed that no matter what I did, the resistance stiffened.

Finally, I began to build a paper trail by formally reviewing each keeper's performance every 12 weeks. Those first performance reviews were terrible experiences for everyone involved. At best, the reviews were confrontational. Because I expected confrontation and grievances filed with the union, the reviews were very detailed, with dates, times, and instances of poor performance or violations of established protocols. Early reviews were nearly uniformly critical of employee performance. The message was coming through that unless keepers began to accept the new methods, their employment would be terminated. My search for positive reinforcement continued to prove futile. It seemed especially ironic to me that we had abandoned a discipline-oriented, negative training system with our elephants only to adopt it with our employees. I considered that a personal failure.

And then, finally, with the second 12-week review, our management team began to see some small areas of improvement. We were quick to notice and comment to the keepers on those glimmerings of hope. By the third review, virtually every keeper was making significant progress in the ability to operate within the parameters of the new program. The performance reviews became less combative. And while I saw that the keepers did not yet believe in it in their hearts, at least they were starting to make the right moves. At the conclusion of a yearlong program we saw some tremendous achievements.

Contrary to the warnings from the old guard, the elephants performed beyond our expectations during the evaluation year. That year we conducted between 1,500 and 2,000 training sessions with the elephants. Our records indicate a total of seven refusals to participate in sessions, and those refusals occurred early in the developmental stage of the program. Elephant shows are conducted daily using the new techniques. We have never once used physical discipline to train an elephant. Neither have we seen aggression directed at the keepers since the program began.

And for me, the most important success came during the fourth 12-week keeper evaluation. Every keeper demonstrated significant improvement in nearly every review category. The atmosphere during the reviews was transformed from bristling hostility to informal, relaxed, and open discussion of the program, its direction, and the keepers' participation in it. In the new atmosphere, I began setting goals with each employee. It's my hope that by helping the keepers set and accomplish their goals, I can increase the program's momentum and encourage their sense of ownership.

To my delight, positive reinforcement is finding an important place in the management of the program. I can sense that the same shift in attitude we experienced nearly two years ago with the elephants is beginning to occur with our people. Those are small steps, but progress is made up of incremental changes.

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Gary Priest is head of the Department of Animal-Behavior Management at the Zoological Society of San Diego.

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Last updated: Oct 1, 1994




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