Tag Archives: positive reinforcement

A Bad Workman Always Blames His Tools

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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…

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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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