Tag Archives: elephant training

A Bad Workman Always Blames His Tools


There are elephant-friendly organisations and parks around the world that actively campaign against the use of hooks on elephants.  They claim that the hooks are used to abuse elephants.  I agree with them that hooks are often misused by mahouts who, for whatever reason, do not make the grade of competent elephant carer and must resort to violence.  But to ban them outright?  I must disagree.  According to the “Elephant Care Manual for Mahouts and Camp Managers”, a sort of bible on captive elephant management produced by Richard Lair and veterinarian Taweepoke Angkawanith, both of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, the hook is the mahouts most important tool.  The second most important tool is the ever practical bush knife.

Here is an excerpt from the manual:

Controlling elephants depends on three interrelated factors: (1) the level of training of the mahout, (2) the tools or equipment used, and (3) the best ways of using the tools. A weakness in any of these areas means that both safety and the elephant’s health are likely to be affected.

As for the quality of training of mahouts, there are disturbing signs that contemporary mahouts are losing many of the skills of the old days. This lack of skills is very likely to in the near future show up as poorer control of bull elephants, most of which are dangerous, at least part of the time. Training is, however, beyond the scope of this book…

Read the rest of this entry


From The Mouths of Mahouts


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.

Read the rest of this entry

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.

Read the rest of this entry

I, Monster


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.

Read the rest of this entry