When it comes to the Oklahoma City Zoo’s six Asian elephants one thing is for certain, they are all different. Different personalities, eating habits, likes and dislikes, and it’s up to us, their caretakers, to know everything we can about these amazing animals entrusted in our care.
A typical day for an elephant caretaker entails more than just feeding and cleaning up after the elephants. We give them daily baths (we check each elephant from trunk to tail to ensure everything looks good), provide enrichment (anything new and different for the elephants to enjoy) and lots of training sessions. These training sessions not only help build bonds between us and the elephants, but these trained behaviors help keep the elephants healthy and safe.
All of our training is done through positive reinforcement. Meaning, it’s completely up to the elephant if they want to participate in that particular behavior or not. If they do participate we reward them with a treat or verbal recognition. That’s where understanding each elephant’s personality is so important. Knowing what will motivate each elephant helps with training.
For example, our youngest herd member, 21-month-old, Achara loves watermelon! It’s her favorite treat but not something she gets on a daily basis. So we might use watermelon as a reinforcement when she voluntarily participates in a veterinary procedure like a blood collection or trunk wash. This is just one of many very important behaviors for our youngster to know and be comfortable enough to do for her wellbeing.
It’s all about building a relationship. And of course, tasty treats help.
From “Nick Newby, assistant curator of large mammals.”