A Day in the Life of Show Business Elephants

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Dr.Sophia Yin, DVM, CAAB, M.S. Animal Science (1966-2014)

Posted March 25, 2009


J.P. plays with a barrel

Have you ever wondered how show biz elephants are trained and housed, and how they spend a typical day? Last week I found out when I visited an American Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) certified elephant training and conservation facility called Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT). Elephants from HTWT have starred in many movies and T.V. shows such as Operation Dumbo Drop, Ace Ventura, Big Top Peewee, the Tarzan Series and Scrubs. They also serve as animal ambassadors and participate in education events.

Owned and run by Gary and Kari Johnson, this Southern California facility houses six Asian elephants who are cared for by a total of six trainers. Their seventh elephant, an adult male, is on breeding loan to the Portland Zoo. This high trainer-to-elephant ratio ensures enough manpower to exercise, bathe, and train the elephants as well as clean and supervise the elephants virtually around the clock.

You can tell that husbandry takes high priority because the place is pristine. More like a luxury estate than a facility housing animals, despite being surrounded by various trees which the elephants can browse, not a leaf dotted the ground. The barn looked like your driveway after a good power-washing and the lawns looked so good, I thought, “they must be fake.”

A typical day at Have Trunk Will Travel starts promptly at 6:30 A.M. The elephants wake up and head into the yard for some light calisthenics while their barn is cleaned.

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Elephant Calisthetics: warm-up jog

From inside the arena Keith Jones, Kari’s brother, sends the elephants around their pen. Says Kari, “it gets their heart rate up and blood pumping.” The 6 walk out single file trunk to tail—except for two year old J.P. who gets to walk next to his mother. On cue and in unison Keith has them halt and then spin, then stop and walk in the new direction.
“It’s easy to exercise them when they’re trained. They all just waltz in the same direction,” says Kari. “It’s like going to the gym first thing in the morning.”

One command and they all lie down on their sides. Another command and they all sit up on their derrieres. Kari points out, “when they sit up, they’re using the tummy muscles. We have to keep the muscles in shape. They can’t just do this once in a while. It’s like an athlete, it’s something they have to do every day. This is their daily routine.”

They seem to enjoy it; no one’s balking or loafing along. And when Gary, whom Kari calls the head “mom” —elephants live in a matriarchal society — walks up and pets the elephants they start making high pitched happy sounds. These include short whistles, high pitched trumpeting, and a low pitched purring or rumbling that elephants only make when they are content.

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Elephant yoga: group “downward dog” pose

It’s also their time to potty, which elephants frequently do after exercise. In fact these elephants have been trained to potty on cue. “Trainers just utter the cue word right before the elephant poops and the elephant comes to associate the word with the pottying.”

Unlike the typical U.S. zoo elephant where keepers interact from outside their pens in what’s called protected contact, handlers at Have Trunk Will Travel directly interact with the elephants. It’s a free contact situation. The elephants are so well socialized to new situations, people, and animals that visitors can safely touch and interact with them when supervised by the trainers. When you stop and think about it this means that these elephants are more socialized to people than the average house-cat who runs and hides when visitors arrive and better behaved than the average dog who jumps all over guests.

It also means that while we’re observing them they can walk right up to us to greet us. And throughout the day, whenever trainers approach a location where the elephants are housed, the elephants walk over for attention. In this instance after they have pottied, they’re still excited. They walk up to us with ears flapping and forward, says Dr. James Peddie, their veterinarian,

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I’m ready for my close-up

“If this were in the wild I’d head the other direction fast.” But here we know their intentions are friendly, and indeed all six stop outside of our personal space. I’m able pet them and feel that area just above the trunk where the purring sounds from Kitty are emanating.

After calisthenics it’s bath time, which elephants love. This is where their skin is carefully brushed once they are wet to keep it healthy. This is also when they are weighed on weighing days, and they get their pedicure or other foot care, if needed.

Throughout the rest of the day they alternate between playtime, rest, and individual training sessions. They also have multiple watering sessions and eating times so that their food and water intake can all be observed. Although it would be much easier to just keep food and water available at all times, because the elephants are housed as a herd, it would be impossible to determine how much food and water each consumed. Additionally, appetite and water intake are good indicators of health. Any changes in speed or amount of consumption could indicate something’s wrong and the caretakers want to be sure they can recognize such changes as soon as they occur.

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Water Break

At night the elephants go back into the barn where they receive food hourly until about 10:00 and then get a whole bunch to graze on for the rest of the night. Then it’s lights out until it starts again next morning. For some people, this may seem like a lot of work. To me, it looks a lot like a spa for elephants.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3: How elephants are trained using positive reinforcement and why training is essential for good husbandry and veterinary care.

Check the link: Distinguishing an Asian Elephant from an African Elephant







Updated 06/21

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13 responses to “A Day in the Life of Show Business Elephants

  1. Dr. Yin,
    I have often wondered what the signs of stress in elephants are? I have long since stopped visiting zoos, circus’ or any demonstration where wild animals are displayed or asked to perform because of my concerns about stress in the animals. In “furred” animals you can see things like puffed whiskers and piloerection, but in elephants, I have never been able to figure out what to look for when an elephant might be stressed.
    I also wonder how these elephants are transported; do elephants not pick up vibrations for communication through their feet? Would transport by truck or train not be fairly uncomfortable for an elephant?
    Thanks for bringing such a well informed viewpoint to the fore!

  2. Great question and one that I will address in the next 1-2 posts. One of the next posts will be on training—traditional by mahouts in Asia vs what HTWT does. I will work in answers to questions that others have. Dr. Eranda Rhajapaksha, a veterinarian, behavior resident who’s particular area of research and expertise is elephant behavior and welfare will be providing insight as to issues regarding elephant welfare and history of their use and care in his native country Sri Lanka.

  3. The most common cause of death in captive elephants is foot problems due to the lack of soft and varied substrate. What surfaces were the elephants walking on, hard-packed dirt and concrete or soft and varied substrate?
    Also, I would be interested to know how the elephants are “trained” since Kari stated, “It’s easy to exercise them when they’re trained.”
    I understand that the elephant’s will is broken through chaining, beatings and food deprivation, that they associate the “training” with the bullhook and respond to commands out of intimidation because the training is carrying a bullhook. Were the trainers carrying bullhooks?

  4. Next post will go over examples of how they trained certain behaviors as well as overall philosophy. They and the vet were very clear that they felt that you can’t dominant an elephant so you have to focus on being a kind leader. They state the elephant must never be put in a situation where it will be fearful otherwise they will not trust you as a leader. and they can’t learn well when they are fearful because they’re just thinking what they are afraid of. As a result, of their training style, their elephants are much better behaved, easy to work with than those trained by the traditional mahouts in Asia.
    Post after that will talk about husbandry and vet care.

  5. I just wanted to add that you are not far from the Oakland Zoo, which is one of a very few zoos in this country that come close to meeting elephants’ needs and does it using protected contact. You should visit and learn about their program. You also might visit the PAWS sanctuary (http://www.pawsweb.org) in San Andreas to see another example of more enlightened captive care.
    Also — what if an elephant is thirsty at a time other than the scheduled watering time? Why is water not available to them at all times (not to mention food, since in the wild elephants spend about 16 hours/day foraging)? And going to the bathroom on command? Many of the circus elephants who find their way to sanctuary have bladder and kidney problems from such practices.

  6. Thanks. I’ve been to the Oakland Zoo for behind the scenes tour given by a friend working with training and also seen the training and care at several other zoos. Am always happy to see what different zoos and sanctuaries do and evaluate the training and care. Also at UCDavis when I was lecturing in the Animal Science department there as collaboration with Paws on some research projects, especially as their new facility was being built.
    I have 2 additional blog articles coming up. The reason the elephants have scheduled watering times is so that the staff can monitor all food and water intake. As noted there is a high ratio of staff to animals so the animals are basically have more supervision than the average house pet. That means people aren’t so busy that they forget to do things ( as happens in the average home). Rather the staff has many set times to check on things and are very diligent about it. Realistically, any one who has a dog or cat knows it would be way easier to just have water running free and food tossed in once a day. That way you don’t have to keep checking things. But also, that way you can’t monitor the animals health as well. And having a doggie door compared to having to take the dog out a lot for potty breaks is easier too. But when I got a doggie door, I stopped monitoring my dog’s poops as well. (e.g. dont’ get monitored until I finally go out to clean up or they go on their walk. These elephants are required to ONLY poop when asked. As with dogs it’s easier to have them poop on cue AS Well as any other time they need to. For instance with dogs, that way they poop when you take them outside on their walk rather than pooping after they come back in (after an hour of play–which commonly happens in pets that are incompletely housetrained).
    so what if they’re thirsty? In the wild elephants dont’ have water access 24/7. They have watering holes. (and we humans don’t always have access to water, we may have to wait an hour or the end of our jog to get the water). But it is important to know when the elephant will need more water. Such as on hot days, the water breaks may be longer or more frequent. One study the elephants are Havetrunkwill travel are being used for will be to determine where (how far apart ) man-made water holes should be placed in Africa.
    Also, elephants may graze much of the day, but that partly because they have to search so far and wide for food. e.g. it takes that long for them to get enough nutrients compared to what they get at HaveTrunkWillTravel. Much of that time is searching and collecting the food, not eating just eating. (e.g. like when humans live off the land as hunters gatherers–more time is spent finding and processing teh food than eating it).
    Also one issue with having animals on large areas of land (such as at Safari West, where I helped with the training program) aren’t as easily observable throughout the day and health issues are not caught as quickly. Not saying that is wrong, just that this is the tradeoff. Like if you let your dog roam around on a 500 acre ranch you’re not going to see him as much and observe him as much and know what else he’s eating (or who else in the neighborhood is feeding him). But that is not really relevant for this situation because these are not elephants that are in a rescue situation. They are elephants that are healthy, well cared for and well trained. I will cover more about both situations as well as the situation in other countries in the following blog posts.

  7. You make many interesting comparisons between the elephants and house pets. Do you believe that these elephants are domesticated?

  8. Great question. Thanks for asking. i’ll try to answer here but may need to write a separate article.
    No. I dont’ think that elephants have been bred for many generations in captivity such that their genetics compared to the wild population is different and such that they are better adapted to living in closer proximity from humans compared to their wild counterparts. (that is what domestication is). However, early learning during the sensitive period of socialization (which occurs across species but at different times) makes a huge difference in what they adapt to. During their sensitive period for socialization animals learn what’s safe and whats not (eg family members and those of your own species are safe but predators are not) and it’s the time that they bond with family and their social unit. As the sensitive period for socialization closes, then the default setting become to be fearful of everything new. This is why wild animals tend to be afraid of humans and dont’ walk up. They can eventually learn to habituate (get used to) new things–such as humans driving by on safari–but it’s a slow process. If animals such as elephants, horses, dogs, cats are exposed to many humans, different animals, cars, machinery sounds, city sounds, etc when they are young during the sensitive period for socialization, then they can recognize these things as safe. Many cats are not socialized well and consequently they hide even when people come to the house and are afraid of the vet, new cats, etc. But if you take kittens and raise them with lots of people coming over, with lots of handling, taking them out, they are as outgoing as the typical dog. As an added benefit, because they are less stressed and afraid of seemingly innocuous things, they are less likely to urinate outside the box (which is the #1 behavioral issue with cats and which is responsible for many people deciding to euthanize or surrender their cats to shelters).
    . Some wild animals, such as wolves (even if people who own them think they are), chimpanzees (even if their owners thing they are–no knowledgable chimpanzee person would have a mature chimpanzee in their home!), even when raised from young, are never safe around humans because their social structures dictates that they become very opportunitist and aggressive once they are sexually mature. They have a high drive to gain higher rank and can do so in a very opportunitist way, for instance, if a higher ranked individual is hurt or startled, a lower ranked one may take that opporutnity to attack and gain higher rank. A good example of of this type of opportunistic lifestyle is on the show Meerkat manner– (whic is not where I learned this but it provides a good example for people to see). For wolves, if they are not raised away from their mother starting before 14 days of age, they become very fearful of humans even if their parents are not. For more information on this go to http://www.wolfpark.org or read chapter 1 of How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves. There’s also http://www.wolf.org.
    Not all wild animals have the same type of rigid heirarchy and they not all are as opportunistic or aggressive as others. For instance, whereas chimpanzees are really aggressive, bonobos, a close relative are not, They tend to bond, share things and have lots of sex. Additionally, while some wild animals are very hard to tame (tameness is defined as 0 flight distance, meaning you can walk up to them and they don’t run away. It doesn’t mean that they won’t bite you if they get “angry” though), some are much easier. in fact animals that evolved on islands that have no predators are very tame. Humans can walk right up to them and they are not afraid. So these types of animals could do well existing with humans if the humans could provide for the other needs, food, enrichment (very important).
    In short, it’s not just whether an animal is domesticated, it’s about how well the animals can adapt and be happy. It varies by species and individual. But it’s really important to know what to look for. Many many dogs are poorly adapted to living with humans. Their aggression would be appropriate for living in the wild but not with humans outside their home (or dogs that are not part of their group)–even though they are domesticated. This is primarily due to fear. Fear of new people, and new dogs. And they learn to react with “offense is my best defense.” They are domesticated but poorly adapted. Now if they only stayed in their homes and owners were actually able to work with them and exercise them in an interactive, structured way-they could still have a good quality of life. But many just don’t get walked or get out because owners aren’t prepared to deal with this type of situation.
    The other reason I compare to dogs or pets people have is people are more familiar. I can compare to other wild animals but then will need to give lots of background info as I did above–and actually just write a new article. But people can relate to their dogs and cats. It’s important for us to treat out own pets as well as we think others should treat animals.

  9. Deborah:
    Please wait for the next posts before making judgements. The reason I compare to other animals is that as a scientist, that’s what scientists do. In fact there’s an entire ares of science called comparative pschology. And when we do research we review the literature on all species, not just our own. For instance when I studied barking as vocal communication in dogs, I also reviewed literature on chacma baboons, gorillas, squirrels, vervet monkeys, wolves, etc. We can learn lot by looking at many species and seeing what is similar and what is different. This is what science is. It is about posing questions and looking for answers, and then always questioning your beliefs.
    In addition to being a scientist, teaching animal behavior course at UC Davis and studying under the premier expert on domestication (please see the previous post for information on domestication), I did take additional nutritional courses beyond veterinary school (including that of comparative nutrition-form and function) AND was a biochemistry major.
    I would appreciate if rather than asking questions in a combative way as if what other say must be wrong (because you heard it differently), you would ask in a more constructive way so that I can provide a constructive answer. I will address to you the needs of a hindgut fermenter (which an elephant is) in an upcoming blog. I will see if I can get one of the zoo nutritionists that I know to comment too. I didn’t see you asking how often the elephants were fed and how much or ask for any other medical or behavioral indicators that the method was appropriate but I will address these anyway. Usually these are the types of questions I would ask. For instance, if they are fed every hour how is that different from being fed a whole bunch so that food so that it takes all day? (e.g. are you objecting to the fact that there is not food on the ground at all times?–and should it be there all day even if the result is that they get fat? Because being fat is an issue at zoos). And does everyone have to do it exactly the same way or it is ok to you if the results are a healthy elephant that gets enough enrichment? or only if I have someone from oakland zoo say it is?
    I will try to address your further questions too if they are presented in a civilized professional manner. I do not get paid to write this blog though, so it may take time for me to get to the answers.

  10. Interesting answers Dr. Yin! I am very interested in the differences between domestic animals versus tame animals and I think you are quite right to compare to a familiar species. You bring up some interesting points about critical developmental milestones for exposure to people and environments. What are the critical points for elephants? I am assuming that elephants who are as frequently handled as these ones are allow the trainers to interact with their young very soon after birth; am I right? Recently, I had the opportunity to obtain a service dog puppy who was handled from the point that she was born and into a puppy development program from 12 hours onward. I compare that to the pup in my pyppy class who was born in a barn and who never interacted with people until he was about six weeks of age. The difference in ability to learn, flight distance, and confidence is astounding. I am assuming that the differences in species I think of as semi-domesticated such as the elephant would be similar.
    Speaking of this, do you have a definition of domesticated? When I was in university, I took courses in ethology, and the definition I remember had to do with neotonous changes and a longer critical period for human socialization, and I seem to remember that elephants were considered semi domesticated because of the longer critical period; am I remembering right?
    I am looking forward to the training parts of your blogs. Husbandry is certainly important and it seems to me that you have covered this very well; but I have to admit that my interest lies in development and training.

  11. Actually I went there with a zoo/ exotic animal veterinarian. Readers can read about the medical and care aspects in an upcoming blog.
    And Dr. Eranda Rajapaksha, who is from Sri Lanka and has studied elephant welfare extensively in the zoos in Europe and is working on elephant welfare research here in the U.S. (plus he is a veterinarian finishing a veterinary behavior residency and doing a Ph.D in animal behaviors/welfare now) will be featured in the next blog articles.

  12. BTY: For those of you who think I only work with cats and dogs. I also been the behavior consultant at several zoos/safari parks (to see some videos of the training of giraffes, lions–i’ll repost the lion one in a day or so–go to http://www.AskDrYin.com to the cross species training) and have worked on training projects with horses and goats. Additionally I have worked on behavior research projects with many other species including cattle, mice, rats, chickens….. . I find it helpful to study as many species as possible in order and to integrate knoweldge from all fields in a carefully thought out manner. One in which you always question what you know so that you can always push yourself to learn more.

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