Tag Archives: change one thing

From The Mouths of Mahouts

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During a recent trip to Baan Ta Klang elephant village in Surin province, I struck up a conversation with Khun (Mr.) Tiew, mahout to 13 year old female elephant Gam.  K. Tiew, I had heard, does not like to use the hook with Gam.

The village itself is an ancient Kuy (or Suy) settlement.  The Kuy people are traditional wild elephant hunters, capturing and training elephants for war.  The village is part of the Elephant Kingdom Project, a Thai government initiative designed to keep elephants off the streets by providing a modest salary to mahouts who bring their elephants to Baan Ta Klang and participate in shows and riding.  Desperate mahouts often resort to street-begging to earn money from tourists, despite it being illegal in big cities.  You can learn more about the Kuy people in this short NPR report.

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The Abhorrence of Hand Feeding Elephants

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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.

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I, Monster

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Let me tell you a story.

Horses are intelligent, sensitive teachers, with endless patience and a disposition to turn the other cheek again and again.  I was drawn to them for their honesty.  In a world of complicated humans that I couldn’t figure out, horses were a constant and I knew where I stood with each individual on any given day.  Sadly, the human world did not equip me to deal with my growing frustration and anger and I took it out on the horses.

I did many things that I am ashamed of doing simply by being a horse rider.  Horse training is an openly violent method of dominating an animal through force, pain and fear.  I was a part of that.  What I don’t often tell people is the things I did to horses that were beyond simply being a rider.  I at time used unnecessary force, was unreasonable, lacking in empathy, unsympathetic, anthropomorphising and generally seeing myself and all my problems reflected in the horse and raging at them as I did inwardly at myself.

The first time I heard a natural horse trainer speak about his life and work, I cried and gushed and generally made a fool of myself.  It grabbed me on a very deep level that I resonated strongly with.  I never knew such people existed and the things they were saying made such perfect sense to me.  To say I was ecstatic is an understatement, and I still have close friends that I met on that day when I burst my enthusiastic and slightly gooey “truth” all over the place.

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Primed

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The words we use to describe things are very important.  I’m not just talking about using kind and compassionate words, having a non-judgemental attitude, or justifying a statement with that most abused of caveats, “but”.  Words are (somewhat) a product of the conscious mind that affect us on an unconscious level.  I first learned about this concept in the TED talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.  After watching, I deemed her research to be somewhat simplistic.  Could the participants who adopted the “powerful body pose” for two minutes before a mock interview really have been hired at a rate of 100%, while the ones who adopted an un-powerful pose were not at the same rate?  I knew that body language conveyed a message, but I didn’t know it conveyed a message to the mind of the poser!

Then I learned about one rather hilarious study.  The participants were brought into a room and asked to read one of two short prose.  One had words like “fast”, “quick”, “hurry”, “go” and other uppity language; the other read more relaxed “slow”, “calm”, “easy”, “old’.  Then the participants had to walk a distance to another room to complete the experiment.  Little did they know, the walk itself was the experiment.  The crafty researchers timed the speed at which the participants would arrive at the second location.  The result?  You guessed it:  the readers of the “go” prose arrived faster than the their more “slow” counterparts 100% of the time.  (Read over the beginning of this paragraph aloud and see how you respond to the lists of words.)

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The First Post

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Throughout my life I have seen much conflict between humans and non-humans.  My father believes that objects are sentient and actively out to get him, leaping off the table to inflict injury and inspire terror; but that’s a skeleton best left in the back of the family closet under old tennis rackets.  Most of my experience has come from the horse world, or rather, my lack of fitting in with the horse world.

For more than 15 years I rode, groomed and trained horses, all the while loving them and hating the work.  Dare I say it, I hated myself.  The only thing gaining ground was my frustration.  Then one day I discovered a room full of people who said the very same things that I had always thought; said them out loud, no less!  I had met only with ridicule about my [incessant] questions, my [naive] “pandering to the horse”, my [laughable] desire to do it a different way, my [misguided] unwavering belief that there had to be a better way.

These people, in this room, had gathered to listen to a man speak about his Natural Horsemanship work.  Needless to say, my life was about to flip right upside-down.

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