Elephant Training in the zoo and circus

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Why are elephants trained?

Unlike domestic animals, which were bred continuously deploying the most suitable animals, elephants in the zoo and in the circus are wild animals - however sweet and nice they are looking. Nobody would think of treating a rhinoceros, a tiger or a polar bear the same way as a gentle dairy cow or a riding horse.

Keny vs. Malayka Zoo Basel

How do they train elephants in Asia?

In Southeast Asia, methods for taming elephants have been developed and fine-tuned over thousands of years. When a wild elephant is caught (khedda), it is first tied up alongside several experienced working elephants (kumies) and dragged to a training ground.
This is the beginning of a bitter and cruel "breaking-in" program. This stage lasts for about one week and is meant to achieve the young wild elephant's total submission to the will of man.

How are wild elephants broken in?

The elephant, still wild, is tied to a wooden frame or between two tree trunks where he is unable to move. And it is thus, tearing at the ropes and flailing with his trunk, that he is introduced to his mahout. In order to break it in, the young elephant is repeatedly stuck with an elephant hook and beaten. At the same time, the mahout talks to him in a calming voice.

Fear, pain, thirst and hunger finally make the elephant give up all resistance. When the elephant begins to accept its fate, the mahouts allow it to take a bath in a river and to eat, although it continues to be tied to a working elephant throughout.

After a few weeks, the young elephant will be tame enough to be led, still shackled and supervised by several mahouts, but no longer accompanied by working elephants.
After this "initiation phase", the elephant starts its proper training to become a working elephant.
tied to a wooden frame

unable to move

Are zoo elephants trained in the same way?

The breaking-in phase where the elephant must learn to get used to man is unnecessary when an elephant has been born in captivity. Thus, elephants born in a zoo or circus are very different in character from broken-in working elephants. For the most part, elephants born and raised in captivity live in permanent family groups. Nevertheless, they must learn at a very early stage to coexist with man, i.e. with their keepers. This coexistence requires fixed rules that a young elephant must already learn very soon after birth.

Who trains the elephants?

In order to be not only fascinated by these animals, but also to be able to handle them and to work with them, some preconditions are required, which not all people and not even all keepers have.

What does a good animal trainer need?

A good elephant keeper or animal trainer has to slip into the elephant’s skin. He has to feel and to behave like an elephant. For this purpose he has to know the animals very well. He needs the powers of observation, sensitivity, determination and a sound severity. First of all he should see how elephants behave among each other, how they resolve conflicts, how they quarrel and fight.

Elephant training

What does a zoo elephant learn?

The elephant training for the zoo is restricted to a practical training. The zoo elephant has to know the commands, which are important for everyday contact and for hygiene. E.g. it has to learn to stand patiently, to lift its feet for pedicure and to lay down for washing.

What are circus elephants taught?

Circus elephants must additionally learn some tricks that are to be shown in the program later on. There are good and impressive elephant numbers, which enable the animals to show their strength and swiftness or rather their sensitivity. But there are also many bad circus acts, which force the elephants to show exercises absolutely unnatural for elephants.
Among these are the two- and even one-armed handstands, as well as the standing on the hind legs.

Bad Circusshow
Elephant training

Why is it harmful for elephants to stand on their hind legs?

In nature, only copulating bulls, or bulls trying to pick fruit from a tall tree with their trunks, stand on their hind legs.

Female elephants do not normally have the natural ability to perform this feat. Young elephant cows will sometimes put their feet up on a stone or a wall.

Grown-up elephant cows do not seem to be comfortable in this position.

old circus poster

Why do circus elephants sometimes stand on their hind legs?

In most circuses elephant cows also have to perform this trick, even though it is unnatural with their physique.
Perhaps this 'sitting up and begging' position has become so common in circuses so that elephants look even bigger and more impressive than they already do anyway.

But there are also plenty of elephant handlers and trainers who use this trick to demonstrate their power over the elephants in their charge in front of spectators.

sitting elephants

These demonstrations of power are generally well-received both by circus and zoo audiences, as they simply cannot know to how much use the elephant hook has been put in teaching an elephant these tricks.
These training exercises may be spectacular, but they do not create mutual respect and trust between the elephant and its handlers, which so is so important when working with elephants on a daily basis and in the prevention of accidents.

Circus Elephants in a children's book

When does training begin?

The training starts already at the second day in the life of an elephant baby. The little elephant with a body weight of more than 120 kg has already to learn that it must never push its keepers, press them against the wall or kick them by its little feet. If it tries to do so, the elephant keeper has to defend himself by a little, gentle but determined smack of his hand or by the elephant hook.

Upali 1 week old

Does the animal trainer always have to be strict?

This experience teaches the little elephant the first respect for its keeper.
But the elephant keeper has to show the baby also confidence and he must stroke it. Stroking is important. Not only because elephants are contact animals, but this way the little elephant learns to let itself touch from head to foot.
The whole training is accompanied by commands. The most important ones are “Yes”, “No” and “Good”. So the little elephant knows what it is expected to do, what it is allowed to do and what it is not allowed to do.

How does a training session begin?

At the age of about one year it is time for the little elephant to let itself chain for washing like the other elephants. This step takes about 2 months. First the little elephant gets a little foot chain put on. It has to learn to stand patiently while the keeper ties the chain around its foot. This is already quite difficult and requires everybody’s patience and sensitivity. The consistent training with the little elephant is also important. That means, once you have started, you have to continue this training every day.
When the little elephant lets itself put on a chain, it is tied up at the forefoot for a short time. After this is going off smoothly and reliably, the same exercise is started with the hind leg. Now the elephant knows what the keeper wants and the keeper knows that the little elephant has learned e.g. being tied up. Now the elephant has also to obey.

How does a young elephant know what he or she has to do?

Every time the animal does something well, it gets a reward (apple slices, grape-sugar or another little something); however if it deliberately does something the wrong way or does it not at all, this is associated with a negative experience. This can be a punch, a pull or a whack by the elephant hook or the whip. Of course this hurts quite a lot and so the elephant hopefully will try hard to carry out the command correctly. The elephant keeper has to prevail by his commands; otherwise it is impossible to live together closely.
But it’s up to every individual keeper to use the tools reasonably. This is a weak point at some zoos and circuses. Good staff is expensive also in the zoo and in the circus.


How does a young elephant learn a command?

E.g. to teach an elephant to lie down, often a rope traction device (Habegger) is used as a support. The hind leg of an elephant can be pulled back by this apparatus, so that it has to lie down. That means that the natural motions are supported by the Habegger. Elephant keepers do not have enough physical strength to push or to pull the leg.

The trainer needs all instruments used for the training, to compensate the difference in physical strength between elephant and human. Used properly, these devices are a good support and protect the elephant from whacks by the hook and from screaming.

Isn't that a bit brutal?

However for a zoo visitor this looks often cruel and obscure. It’s not always understandable for laypersons (although this does hardly exist in animal keeping).

But every horse keeper and every dog owner has a little bridle or a little leash for problems of the keeping or of the training; and they are working without any spectators. Horses are torn at the reins and to teach a dog to lie down, it is often simply pushed down by hand.

Isn't that a bit brutal?

However for a zoo visitor this looks often cruel and obscure. It’s not always understandable for laypersons (although this does hardly exist in animal keeping).

But every horse keeper and every dog owner has a little bridle or a little leash for problems of the keeping or of the training; and they are working without any spectators. Horses are torn at the reins and to teach a dog to lie down, it is often simply pushed down by hand.

What is brutal?

What should never be used however in a modern zoo or circus, are all the brutal and perverse methods such as fire, glowing irons and cigarette stubs, acid in hook wounds or also the electroshock devices spread in farms and other perversions "still recently" used.

I don’t think that the little elephant on the side will stand on its head by command with only some pieces of sugar as a reward.

The cow elephant Indy from the Zurich zoo has got many scars from wounds, caused when she was caught and broken in Burma. What it has gone through can only be suspected.

Is there such a thing as training that is fair to elephants?

There is a good training, which is hard but suitable for elephants and which should be practiced in modern, civilized zoos and circuses. But still today there exist very brutal training methods, which have got nothing to do with tradition, but only with the human’s attitude towards the animal. You don’t necessarily have to travel far to realize that.

Elephantbaby making a headstand
Elephant Training
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