Have you ever wondered how show biz elephants are trained and housed, and how they spend a typical day? Last week I found out when I visited an American Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) certified elephant training and conservation facility called Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT). Elephants from HTWT have starred in many movies and T.V. shows such as Operation Dumbo Drop, Ace Ventura, Big Top Peewee, the Tarzan Series and Scrubs. They also serve as animal ambassadors and participate in education events.
Owned and run by Gary and Kari Johnson, this Southern California facility houses six Asian elephants who are cared for by a total of six trainers. Their seventh elephant, an adult male, is on breeding loan to the Portland Zoo. This high trainer-to-elephant ratio ensures enough manpower to exercise, bathe, and train the elephants as well as clean and supervise the elephants virtually around the clock.
You can tell that husbandry takes high priority because the place is pristine. More like a luxury estate than a facility housing animals, despite being surrounded by various trees which the elephants can browse, not a leaf dotted the ground. The barn looked like your driveway after a good power-washing and the lawns looked so good, I thought, “they must be fake.”
A typical day at Have Trunk Will Travel starts promptly at 6:30 A.M. The elephants wake up and head into the yard for some light calisthenics while their barn is cleaned.
From inside the arena Keith Jones, Kari’s brother, sends the elephants around their pen. Says Kari, “it gets their heart rate up and blood pumping.” The 6 walk out single file trunk to tail-except for two year old J.P. who gets to walk next to his mother. On cue and in unison Keith has them halt and then spin, then stop and walk in the new direction.
“It’s easy to exercise them when they’re trained. They all just waltz in the same direction,” says Kari. “It’s like going to the gym first thing in the morning.”
One command and they all lie down on their sides. Another command and they all sit up on their derrieres. Kari points out, “when they sit up, they’re using the tummy muscles. We have to keep the muscles in shape. They can’t just do this once in a while. It’s like an athlete, it’s something they have to do every day. This is their daily routine.”
They seem to enjoy it; no one’s balking or loafing along. And when Gary, whom Kari calls the head “mom” -elephants live in a matriarchal society – walks up and pets the elephants they start making high pitched happy sounds. These include short whistles, high pitched trumpeting, and a low pitched purring or rumbling that elephants only make when they are content.
It’s also their time to potty, which elephants frequently do after exercise. In fact these elephants have been trained to potty on cue. “Trainers just utter the cue word right before the elephant poops and the elephant comes to associate the word with the pottying.”
Unlike the typical U.S. zoo elephant where keepers interact from outside their pens in what’s called protected contact, handlers at Have Trunk Will Travel directly interact with the elephants. It’s a free contact situation. The elephants are so well socialized to new situations, people, and animals that visitors can safely touch and interact with them when supervised by the trainers. When you stop and think about it this means that these elephants are more socialized to people than the average house-cat who runs and hides when visitors arrive and better behaved than the average dog who jumps all over guests.
It also means that while we’re observing them they can walk right up to us to greet us. And throughout the day, whenever trainers approach a location where the elephants are housed, the elephants walk over for attention. In this instance after they have pottied, they’re still excited. They walk up to us with ears flapping and forward, says Dr. James Peddie, their veterinarian,“If this were in the wild I’d head the other direction fast.” But here we know their intentions are friendly, and indeed all six stop outside of our personal space. I’m able pet them and feel that area just above the trunk where the purring sounds from Kitty are emanating.
After calisthenics it’s bath time, which elephants love. This is where their skin is carefully brushed once they are wet to keep it healthy. This is also when they are weighed on weighing days, and they get their pedicure or other foot care, if needed.
Throughout the rest of the day they alternate between playtime, rest, and individual training sessions. They also have multiple watering sessions and eating times so that their food and water intake can all be observed. Although it would be much easier to just keep food and water available at all times, because the elephants are housed as a herd, it would be impossible to determine how much food and water each consumed. Additionally, appetite and water intake are good indicators of health. Any changes in speed or amount of consumption could indicate something’s wrong and the caretakers want to be sure they can recognize such changes as soon as they occur.
At night the elephants go back into the barn where they receive food hourly until about 10:00 and then get a whole bunch to graze on for the rest of the night. Then it’s lights out until it starts again next morning. For some people, this may seem like a lot of work. To me, it looks a lot like a spa for elephants.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3: How elephants are trained using positive reinforcement and why training is essential for good husbandry and veterinary care.