Managing elephants: Free and protected contact

Photo by Kelli O'Brien

Photo by Kelli O’Brien

For hundreds of years, humans have managed elephants, either for display purposes or as working animals. Traditional training methods used are referred to as free contact, in which keepers and elephants share the same unrestricted space. Around 1990, some trainers began to test the training methods commonly used with marine mammals on elephants, from outside the elephants’ spaces. They were successful and coined the term protected contact, to distinguish that the keeper was protected from the elephant by some sort of physical barrier.

This method of training is also referred to as target training, or restricted contact. Seneca Park Zoo’s African elephants, Genny C and Lilac, have been managed in free contact since their arrival in 1979. I started working with them in 1985 and stayed until 1997, when I took an elephant keeper position at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There, I learned protected contact training methods and cared for 17 African elephants over 11 years. Since my return to SPZ in 2012, I have helped to implement these methods with Genny C and Lilac. By adding these new training methods to our overall management system, we will have the most flexibility in providing the best care for our elephants now and into the future.

Adapting to a different way of working after so many years took time and patience, but we have all enjoyed seeing each elephant discover a new way of interacting with their keepers. The fact that we have gradually implemented these new methods has made it a stress-free and positive experience for the elephants, as well as for staff.

While the majority of our interaction with the elephants continues to be in free contact, our staff can now successfully carry out many daily husbandry routines using only protected contact. During some of the sessions, visitors may see the elephants participating in baths, foot care and exercise. If you get the chance to see one of these sessions, or if you have any questions about the elephants’ training and care, feel free to ask one of us after the session is over. We always like to share information about these wonderful animals!

– Mary Ellen Sheets, Elephant Handler