Captive Elephant Management:

Interview with Knoxville Zoo’s Curator of Elephants

By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | April 23, 2013

As I plan for my trip to India to work with South Asia’s largest animal welfare and conservation organization, I realize that the one area most removed from my field of expertise is elephant management and the captive breeding of elephants for conservation purposes.

Sure I have been around Asian and African elephants in zoological settings, but because elephants are so unique in regard to how they are handled, it takes more than just cursory exposure to working with them adequately.  Hence, elephant managers often work solely with elephants or with elephants and perhaps a few other related or unrelated taxa and have usually acquired years of experience working with these amazing animals.

Sure I have been around Asian and African elephants in zoological settings, but because elephants are so unique in regard to how they are handled, it takes more than just cursory exposure to care for them adequately.  Hence, elephant managers often work solely with elephants or with elephants and perhaps a few other related or unrelated taxa and have usually acquired years of experience working with these amazing animals.

In recent years, the management of elephants has come under much scrutiny because zoos and sanctuaries offer different environments for these sentient beings, which happen to be the largest terrestrial animals on Earth.  Although zoos have standardized programs for managing elephants through free contact or more recently protected contact management, I must say that no two zoo elephant programs are the same and so it would be unwise and unfair for me to categorically dismiss the benefits of either type of management facility or environment, meaning sanctuary or zoo.

I will say that some concern regarding the current welfare of elephants or other animals in zoo conservation centers is quite unfounded. I’ve been reluctant to write about elephant management because such controversy persists over how to best care for these vanishing giants. Although animal keepers continue to work for relatively low wages as they have for decades, their education, degree of knowledge, and empathy for the welfare of their charges have never been greater.  They certainly don’t do it for the money, but rather their passion for working with wildlife. Elephant keepers, in particular, are extremely sensitive to public perception. So among all wildlife husbandry professionals, they may be the most mindful of how zoo visitors perceive conditioning and training methods used to manage their charges.  I will also add that whether an organization permits free or protected contact training of elephants, operant conditioning through positive reinforcement can still serve as the basis for behavioral training.  But again, I’m not the expert when it comes to elephants. I asked my colleague, Jim Naelitz, the Curator of Elephants at the Knoxville Zoo to weigh in on the topic and answer some questions.


Jordan: I believe sanctuaries and zoos both offer certain benefits and that neither probably offers the perfect environment for any species. They offer the best conditions under the circumstances. Zoos do offer two things that not all sanctuaries provide. First, they offer that irreplaceable experience for a child to feel that moment of exhilaration upon meeting a living and breathing wild animal—something that a mounted specimen in a museum cannot provide.  They also contribute to conservation breeding programs for vanishing species along with research programs that aid in the development of improved husbandry and healthcare as well as the better management of free-ranging populations. 

Although there is controversy over space for elephants in zoos, it would be unfair to say that space is the critical factor in providing elephants with the kind of “welfare” we deem appropriate.  I say this because I have worked with similarly intelligent and sentient animal species at very spacious sanctuaries, where stereotypic behaviors still manifested in animals that came right out of the wild in need of rescue–orphaned animals. So what I’m getting at, albeit based on anecdotal evidence is it seems people forget about how dynamic an environment can be made to meet the behavioral needs of captive animals through enrichment and conditioning programs. Can you talk about this with regard to elephants?

Jim: Your comment about smaller spaces being capable of becoming dynamic and capable of providing behavioral needs for all animals is spot on.  Even in the wild animals only tend to move as far as their nutritional requirements demand.  Elephants, in particular, may travel several miles per day during the dry season to find food or water, however, those same elephants may travel less than a mile during the wet season when food and water are plentiful.  If you ask anybody who works with animals they will always say they want more room for their charges.  The truth of the matter is: the amount of space is not as important as the usability of that space.  When zoos are designing new elephant habitats or merely updating existing habitats the needs of the animals are always the driving factor.  Our elephants have access to mud wallows, pools, and/or large sand piles at all times.  We, like many other facilities, have several winch systems installed throughout the habitats that allow us to hang enrichment items and hay sources.  All of these items allow the elephants to exhibit natural behaviors and can be modified to require them to problem solve.  Examples of this can include: burying food items in the sand piles that require the elephants to dig the items up; by altering the height of hay sources the animals may have to think of ways to get to the hay.  There are a few zoos that have gone as far as building exercise trails outside the regular habitats that allow them to walk the elephants for longer distances with fewer distractions.  One big issue that exists, with facilities that boast massive areas for the elephants, is the failure to take their diets into account.  The elephant’s diet must be matched to their exercise regiment as well as to the amount of natural food available to them in their habitats.  If the elephants are fed their regular diet in a smaller habitat and exercised properly there shouldn’t be a weight problem.  If the same elephants are fed their regular diet and given access to several hundred acres of trees and grasses they will eat more and exercise less thus becoming obese.  Another factor that comes into play, as far as, providing enrichment items and handler interaction is the number of elephants at the facility.  Places that have a large number of elephants can allow the other “herd mates” to enrich each other.  Another option is mixed-species habitats.  The only facility, in the US, that currently has this set up for elephants is the Dallas Zoo.  They have the elephants in a habitat with impala and giraffe.   In this type of habitat, the elephants have the chance to interact with the other species as well as each other.  This does not come without risk, however.  Most of the elephants that are currently under human care have not been in contact with other species so aggression can become an issue.  The design of the habitat is the only way you can manage this aggression.  The habitat at the Dallas Zoo has several rock formations and narrow gates that the other species can easily get through that provides them with safe zones if they feel threatened.

Jordan: Is it fair to say that the bond between trainer and animal in a zoo setting is fairly strong and in the case of working with elephants it is critical?

Jim: The bond between trainers/handlers and their animals is very strong.  No matter what animal you are working with the relationship is the key factor in your success or failure.  It doesn’t matter if it is a trained wild animal or a house pet; the animal has to be able to trust you.  The larger the animal the more important your relationship with them becomes.  The larger animals pose greater risks in terms of using drugs to assist with medical treatments.  Elephants can experience very serious issues if they are in a compromised position for more than a couple of hours.   If an elephant is down on its side for an extended period the blood supply to the down legs becomes compromised, the weight of the upside front leg on the chest can also put extra strain on the heart and lungs.  These factors require elephant trainers/handlers to train their animals to cooperate with as many medical procedures as possible.  In order to do this, you have to build a strong positive relationship with the animals based on mutual respect and trust.  You cannot build this type of relationship based on fear or domination, many people who have tried this approach in the past end up in trouble down the road because the elephant is smart enough to figure this approach out and they will take advantage of a situation if that person lets their guard down.  You must have the type of relationship that allows the animal to trust you with its life.

All animals in zoos and circuses are truly ambassadors for their species.  Anytime someone has the opportunity to meet an animal face to face or speak to the people who devote their lives to caring for the animals a special connection is made that goes so much further than seeing them in a book, on tv, or in a museum could ever achieve.  These connections also make it easier for us to help animals in their home range because we are able to bring the plight of so many endangered species to the masses.  There are millions of people throughout the country who go to zoos and circus performances and as animal care professionals we have the opportunity to influence every one of our guests.

Jordan: You are quite active in the Elephant Managers Association. Can you tell me a bit about what the organization does for elephants?

Jim: The Elephant Manager’s Association is a group that is very dear to me. I have been a member of the EMA since I started working with elephants in 1992 and it always amazes me to see how far we have come as an organization.  The EMA officially started in 1988 after 8 years of holding annual meetings at various zoos around the country.  As an organization, we are very active in all aspects of elephant care and conservation.  We hold an annual conference hosted by zoos throughout the country.  The organization has members from around the globe and you do not have to work with elephants to become a member.  The EMA has several different membership levels based on experience and interest.  In addition to an annual conference, the EMA communicates with its members by publishing a quarterly journal and a smaller newsletter in between journal publications.  Our board is very active in all governmental and judicial initiatives that will ultimately influence our profession.  The organization works closely with the elephant SSP/TAG.  We raise funds for various conservation projects worldwide.  They also offer elephant care professionals scholarships to help defer the costs of professional development classes and workshops.  This just scratches the surface of what the EMA is.  Anyone interested in the organization can go to our website for more information.

Jordan: Many people are unaware of what captive elephant programs in zoos offer to field programs.  Zoos and field researchers sometimes work together for the benefit of animals, with the objective being to save elephants from extinction, correct?

Jim: There has been so much done with and by elephants under human care that resulted in positive contributions to their wild counterparts.  Most if not all of the researchers who are actively working in the field got started with financial assistance from zoos and circuses.  A few that come to mind are Cynthia Moss, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, and Katy Pane.  Many of the instruments and techniques used in the field were developed and tested on captive elephants because it is much easier to retrieve and repair/redesign in a controlled environment.  Many zoos raise money to help fund several conservation projects worldwide.  Most of these projects are funded by the International Elephant Foundation and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  Feld Entertainment (Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus), Riddle’s Elephant Sanctuary, and Have Trunk Will Travel are a couple of the private owners that make a huge impact on both captive and wild elephants through monetary funding as well as allowing various research projects to take place at their facilities.  There are too many projects to cover but two projects that are some of the most successful are travel corridors and using hot peppers to help reduce human-elephant conflict.  The land purchased for travel corridors was done so with funds provided by the IEF and the information used to determine the best locations for these corridors was collected by radio-collaring several herds of elephants and monitoring their migration routes from year to year.  The hot pepper project was a result of observing the feeding habits of elephants in zoos.  We learned that none of the elephants in zoos eat hot peppers.  In elephant range countries herds of elephants will come in and wipe out a village’s entire food supply in one night.  As a result of our observations villages that have had problems with crop-raiding elephants are planting a few rows of hot peppers around their crops and the peppers act as a deterrent to the elephants.  The peppers can save their crops as well as provide the villages another source of income; they harvest the peppers and can use them to make salsa or other products with them.

Jordan: Elephant work can be very dangerous.  Can you share your opinion of free contact vs protected contact elephant training?

Jim: I do not consider working with elephants a dangerous profession.  It definitely has its risks but so does any other animal-based profession.  When you are working with any animal very few things are black and white, and working with elephants has a larger grey area than most others. (No pun intended) To put the risks in perspective: dogs kill an average of 10-20 people per year, in the last 22 years (in AZA facilities) we have lost 9 handlers/trainers with elephants and in the same time frame 10 people were killed working with large cats (also in AZA facilities).  I am not going to get into the issue of free vs. protected contact.  As a profession, we are trying hard to get away from dividing the ranks with this debate.  We went through it 20 some years ago and it just gives the animal rights extremist groups the opportunity to strike; if we can’t get along with each other how are we going to show a united front against the groups that are trying to end what we have devoted our lives to?  Rather than only looking at things as one management style or another each elephant should be approached on an individual basis and just look at what we do as elephant management.

Jordan: What is your hope for the future direction of elephant management in captive breeding centers?

Jim: My hope for the future of elephant management is to provide the best care for our elephants that we possibly can.  In the 21 years that I have been working with elephants have seen many changes and improvements to the care we are capable of providing the elephants under human care.  In that time we have seen the average life expectancy rise from late teens to late thirties.  In the early 90s, the adage was that elephants are 8,000 to 10,000-pound horses.  With that thought, they were often medically treated like equines with the drug dosage being adjusted by weight ratios.  Through the years various research has been done that has allowed us to learn exactly how effective the various drugs are when used to treat elephants.  We have also learned different handling and husbandry techniques that allow us to build stronger relationships with our elephants which is critical for providing the best environment for our elephants.  We have made great strides in many areas of elephant management but there are still many more that we need to make.  As I mentioned earlier there is a ton of research being done on TB and the elephant herpes virus that has provided us the opportunity to be able to treat these issues in a more effective manner.  Up to a few years ago, the herpes virus was a death sentence for elephants.  We have learned how to notice the symptoms quicker and begin treatment and Houston and St. Louis have shown much success in the treatment regimen.  Most recently the Baltimore Zoo has also gone through a herpes scare with their young male.  He is showing great strides throughout the treatment, which shows just how dedicated the trainers and handlers are to providing our elephants with proper care.  One area that, in my opinion, we need to focus more on is nutrition.  Most of our elephants are overweight.  We are dealing with arthritis issues in many elderly animals which is not a surprise since arthritis has been observed in every land mammal species.  I think nutrition is becoming an issue because we are seeing a very rapid growth rate in the younger animals.  This rapid growth rate puts added weight on joints that are not able to develop fast enough to handle that weight.  We are also seeing high birth weights compared to elephants in their home range.  One thing that comes to mind for me is the fact that elephants under human care do not encounter a dry season.  In Africa, elephants encounter a dry season that requires them to walk long distances in order to find food and water.  These periods of poor nutrition keep growth rates and birth weights in check.  In zoos and circuses, our elephants receive the same nutrition values year-round.  One idea that some people in our profession are talking about is trying to alter the diets in an attempt to mimic a dry and wet season.  Before we follow through with diet modification we need to do more research on elephant dietary requirements and how to do this in the safest manner possible for the elephants.

Jordan: Facilities have to manage bull elephants and cows differently. Can you talk about this and any special consideration for herd dynamics in captivity?

Jim: The overall management of male and female elephants isn’t all that different.  The difference comes in their social requirements and temperament.  As a general rule of thumb, males are not as social as females.  Which is another change in our management philosophy.  When I started working with elephants the assumption was that males were solitary outside of breeding opportunities.  As facilities have picked up the breeding rates and watching the males’ behavior in the presence of females and calves we have found that they do participate in play activities with young elephants.  This has resulted in many facilities allowing their males to go into the habitats with their females and young elephants under close supervision.  When the male shows signs that he is getting annoyed or wants to be left alone the staff immediately removes him from the situation before he has an opportunity to become aggressive.  This change in approach requires us to build enclosures that are capable of holding and maintaining males that can reach weights of 15,000 to 17,000 pounds.  I have seen two males snap 30-33 inch diameter walnut trees off at the ground so the engineering and design phase of a facility is a very critical part of the process.

elephant management in zoos.  I turned to my colleague Michael Hutchins. Dr. Hutchins is the former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles about elephant management in accredited zoos. He also organized and led the AZA Elephant Planning Initiative in 1999 and co-authored the report titled:  Elephant Planning Initiative: The Future of Elephants in North American Zoos.  This document and its recommendations provided the impetus for many, if not most, of the improvements in elephant management that we see in AZA-accredited zoos today.


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Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine, and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife and conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.