Let’s talk about stereotypical behavior, what it is and why captive-held elephants engage in it. The facts might surprise you.
Self-stimulatory or stereotypic behavior is defined as the repetition of physical movements. Two commonly recognized stereotypical behaviors exhibited by captive-held elephants are head bobbing and swaying.
Elephants might engage in these behaviors when they feel unstimulated or as an anticipatory reaction to their normal routine, such as regularly scheduled access in or out of a barn or feeding time.
Fear can also cause an elephant to engage in stereotypical behavior, in which case the head bobbing or swaying is overly exaggerated, fast paced and pronounced. When the cause of the behavior is boredom or anticipatory, bobbing is slow and rhythmic.
Stereotypical behavior is the elephant’s way of managing stress, a calming mechanism that creates endorphins that soothe the elephant. While humans might engage in physical exercise, meditate or take drugs to deal with stress, elephants have this natural mechanism to accomplish the same thing.
When caring for elephants in captivity, the goal is to provide an environment that minimalizes the incidence of self-stimulatory behavior. But stereotypical behavior is common and can be displayed when elephants anticipate feeding or experience a change in routine. It’s important to identify the cause of the behavior, fear or anticipation in order to modify existing routines to avoid that response in the future.
Facilities that strive to provide optimal welfare understand that allowing elephants to engage in prolonged periods of stereotypical behavior is unhealthy. Employing behavior enrichment and attention to space and social situations are practices designed to reduce stereotypical behavior.
It is unclear whether captive-held elephants can live a life completely free of stereotypical behavior. But it has been proven that access to a vast, complex space can occupy an elephant and provide the stimulation needed to greatly reduce their need to self-medicate.