The Abhorrence of Hand Feeding Elephants


The number one thing that the average elephant-loving human can do to instantly make the lives of captive elephants better is to stop invading their personal space to give them food.  I will support this with three reasons.

Reason the first: an animal does not distinguish between a treat fed from the hand or placed in bucket.  They just don’t.  Adult animals do not hand feed each other.  To put it loosely, one of the roles of matriarch of a herd is to keep the herd alive by finding food and water; if human carers are providers of the food, there is no distinction in the animals mind as to the mechanics of how that food is transported to their mouths.  To them, the food is provided by the human carer and they are grateful for that.  A captive/domestic animal will learn which humans carry treats and seem to lavish attention on that person, but they would be equally happy if the treats were deposited on the ground and they were left in peace to gobble them up.

Secondly, lets get into training.  Positive reinforcement is a term bandied around a lot these days.  But it is just a part of the type of learning known as Operant Conditioning, along with negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.  Operant conditioning teaches by using consequences to modify behaviours.  I won’t get into the nitty gritty of it all here, but encourage you to study the practice more if you are curious about the science of how we learn.  “Pavlovs Dogs” is a good starting point.

The term “positive” here is more scientific than denoting something desirable.  Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus that is considered rewarding to the learner in order to increase a desired behaviour.  Positive punishment is the addition of a stimulus that is considered adverse to decrease an undesirable behaviour.  Have you ever clapped your hands and yelled at your dog/cat to get off the kitchen counter and away from the delicious, unguarded food?  That is positive punishment.  Negative reinforcement is the removal of an adverse stimulus to encourage a desired behaviour.  Negative punishment, the removal of a stimulus to decrease an undesired behaviour, such as taking a toy away from a naughty child.

What has this got to do with hand feeding, you might ask?  Well, food is usually the best reward to use when training an animal because it is number 1 or 2 on their list of “basic things I need to be happy”.  Pertaining to the positive reinforcement aspect of Operant Conditioning requires that food rewards be given only when the desired behaviour occurs.  Food presented at other times is interpreted by the animal as reward for the behaviour they are exhibiting at that moment.  This can be very confusing for the animal, especially when they have their next session with the trainer and all of a sudden the reinforced behaviours are no longer being rewarded, or perhaps a positive punishment has to be introduced as the animal becomes frustrated at the inconsistency of rewards.

Even though we don’t like to admit it, we all respond well to a fairly clear cut routine and predictable rewards.

Same with the elephants.  This leads us to reason number three: personal space.  A central tenant of Operant Conditioning is that the behaviour is offered voluntarily and then reinforced/punished.  So, if one day the elephant just does not want to perform a certain behaviour, they will not be forced into doing it.  A certain respect of personal space must be recognised.  So too the elephant must learn to respect the personal space of the trainer and get out of it when asked.  Again this personal space boundary limit is taught through reinforcement/punishment.  An example of negative reinforcement can be as simple as waving your arms (stimulus) while the elephant is too close until the he moves far enough away that you feel comfortable, then instantly stop waving and adopt a calm, relaxed attitude; every time the elephant performs the behaviour of coming too close, the stimulus is repeated and then removed when the elephant ceases the behaviour (i.e. moves out of your personal space).

Personal space boundaries are very important to all of us, though very few of us recognise that.  When we enter an elephants personal space without asking and give it food, the elephant takes it as a reward for allowing their personal comfort to be disturbed.  They may also have learned through positive punishment that lashing out is not an acceptable behaviour, so they take the reward and, in essence, keep quiet.  I cannot stress enough how unsettling this is for elephants, or any animal for that matter.  A commotion of hands, photographers and voices is not something many elephants willingly seek out.  Ultimately the experience is confusing and threatening.  Not being able to react to perceived threats negatively effect the animals physiology, as all those “fight or flight” juices are being released in the brain, but no action can be taken and so no relief obtained.  The animal is now in a state of stress and will have to find other outlets.  Enter, to name a few, stereotypical behaviours, abnormal social interactions, self-harm or harm to other elephants, digestive upsets and aggressive behaviours.

In some cases the elephant may get annoyed at a group of people not giving food and begin to physically grope, push or in extreme cases actually lash out to demand bananas.  This kind of behaviour shows that the elephant has now learned that humans are walking banana trees which in general do not need to be respected.  The risk of getting trampled increases greatly.  The training of a large, wild animal such as an elephant is dangerous.  Interactions with people who don’t know any better can and does interfere with an elephants contentment equilibrium.

I will say with conviction that casually feeding elephants from your hand has an overall negative impact on their lives.  Feeding an elephant from your hand is beneficial only for you, unless you are part of a training scenario.  Elephants that approach humans for food do not do so out of love.  Ever.

Read more on “Cats as masters of Negative Reinforcement”:

I once worked with a very large and rather petulant young mare.  One day she wanted to come and work with me, but I had plans for her later that afternoon and was taking another horse now; so she broke down the fence, invaded the ongoing training session and came straight into my personal space looking for food.  The environment I was working in was dominated by over-treating, or bribery, which I secretly didn’t agree with.  To the casual onlooker, the horse couldn’t bear to be away from me and was willing to break through a fence to come and spend time together.  How sweet. In actual fact, this mare was showing disrespect for me and the other horse at whom she aggressively bared her teeth, displayed extreme violence in breaking down a wooden fence and dangerous behaviour by approaching me directly at high speed, all in protest of not being chosen to enter the paddock with me and attaining the food reward that followed.

The day I knew that she really did “love” me was when she was making me work extremely hard for a trot on the circle; I pushed too far and she all of a sudden swung her back end around, placed her hooves mere inches from my head and galloped off across the paddock.  Then she stopped and looked back.  She told me that I had reached her limit, but that she was willing to consider me as a companion if I wouldn’t do it again.  We found another way together to get a nice trot on the circle.  By the time I left she didn’t get many food based rewards from me by design, saving when she really earned it.  The majority of the time I used non-food rewards.  Our sessions together were rather fiery and very emotionally and intellectually demanding.  I loved it and she, as a willing companion, showed her enjoyment of the activity beyond solely as a means of gaining a food reward.

You might not have enjoyed what I have to say.  Too bad.  You might say that a treat here and there is a nice, harmless, human-elephant interaction.  Almost always, it isn’t.  Whether you are consciously doing it or not, giving a reward (food) means you are engaging in Operant Conditioning behaviour modification.  This isn’t about what makes you feel good; it’s about what is good for the elephant.


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