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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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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