Compassionate Elephant Care (CEC) is a system of caring for and handling captive-held elephants that is free of dominance, punishment and infliction of pain. It enables a caregiver or mahout (elephant trainer in Asia) to manipulate the elephant’s behavior, while maneuvering safely around or atop him/her in a free-contact environment (where there is no barrier between the elephant and the caregiver).
There are different methods of training and handling elephants that vary in how much contact they allow the elephant and handler to have, the tools used and whether they use dominance or reward to encourage the desired behaviors.
Methods of training and handling elephants
Traditionally, elephants in Asia are handled using free contact-dominance. This method is based on the use of dominance and negative reinforcement (i.e., inflicting pain). Individuals who use this method are indoctrinated that dominance is the only way to control elephants. With this method, there is no barrier between the trainer and the elephant. To ensure control, elephants are deprived of autonomy and can suffer emotionally and psychologically as a result.
Two decades ago in response to elephant-caused deaths, zookeepers in the United States began employing a new method of management called protected contact. It uses positive reinforcement (rewarding desired behaviors) to manipulate elephant behavior so keepers can provide veterinary care from behind a protective barrier. This method was designed to protect veterinarians and keepers from physical harm. The use of protected contact does not guarantee elephants protection from unskilled keepers and psychological harm.
Protected contact is taught using Positive Reinforcement Target Training (PRTT).
Free Contact Non-Dominance
Around the same time protected contact was coming into use, sanctuaries began using free-contact without dominance. Carol Buckley developed and began testing this new system with free-roaming elephants rescued to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Sanctuary caregivers successfully used a combination of free contact non-dominance and positive reinforcement to manipulate elephant behavior so they could provide veterinary and husbandry care and facilitate trauma recovery.
The method puts elephant welfare above all else. It is designed to provide autonomy to the elephant and support elephant/caregiver relationship building without dominance. Free contact non-dominance does not require a protective barrier between caregiver and elephant, but does require a highly skilled caregiver.
Seeing the Sanctuary’s success with this method, Carol realized that it could be used even in Asia, where working elephants have been managed using free contact-dominance for centuries. Carol then expanded and formalized the method, calling it Compassionate Elephant Care.
Compassionate Elephant Care (CEC) goals
- To demonstrate that through positive reinforcement, such as food rewards, praise and interspecies relationship building, mahouts and caregivers can achieve a more balanced, respectful and cooperative relationship with their elephants.
- To acknowledge that every elephant is an individual with personal experiences that shape their perspective and reactions to different situations.
- To recognize that expertise and respect are key components of success.
- To give mahouts and elephant caregivers the necessary skills to care for elephants humanely.
- To strengthen elephant/mahout/caregiver bonds.
- To teach the mahout and caregivers an alternative management system that focuses on positive reinforcement and healthy relationship building.
Reframing experience, learning new ways of interacting
The program helps caregivers reframe their experience in the context of deeper knowledge of elephants’ advanced intellect and social nature. They are encouraged to empathize with the pain and suffering elephants experience when they are trained and managed harshly.
By learning new ways of interacting with their elephants — and seeing positive results — they can transform their approach and their relationship with their elephant.
CEC curriculum covers:
- elephant biology and physiology
- how the environment and outside stimuli influence an elephant’s response and reactions
- how a fear response interferes with learning
- how the elephant’s emotions, state of mind, past experiences (both traumatic and pleasurable) and personality influence the ways s/he responds to the trainer
- the effects of positive and negative reinforcement
- relationship building
CEC is also taught using Positive Reinforcement Target Training.
Introducing Compassionate Elephant Care to Asia
In 2010, EAI introduced Compassionate Elephant Care to Asia, where elephants are still used in free-contact environments as beasts of burden, entertainers, street beggars and objects of religious devotion.
Although EAI prefers that elephants not be exploited in any manner, traditions are ingrained and it will take time to change captive-held elephant culture completely. But the first results are promising, as mahouts enthusiastically learn new skills and a humane philosophy of management.
Over the long term, Compassionate Elephant Care will help to spare elephants from the harsh treatment that has plagued their predecessors for generations.
Also see EAI’s Mahout & Elephant Training Initiative.