Due to a lack of safe facilities, Bambi’s zoo was unable to fully assess her medically, so there are many questions about her health. We suspect some kidney issues, and her weight loss is a cause for concern. She has some obvious issues with one nail and her cuticles, but she needs a more thorough evaluation of her feet and eyes. In general, she needs a full check-up and, like most captive elephants, medical care, and support. To do this safely, Bambi needs to go through positive reinforcement training.
Bambi’s comfort and confidence seems to be growing. With this, we have begun taking the first very basic steps in training. Since we can’t safely walk up to her and do certain things, we need to teach her to present her feet, eye, and other body parts when asked.
This process begins by showing her what positive reinforcement training is. To overly simplify, we teach her that if she does certain things when asked, she earns a food reward, such as pieces of fresh fruit. While fruit is part of her regular diet, she enjoys it enough that she is happy to “earn” extra fruit. There is never any punishment involved, and she is always free to walk away at any time. As we have shared with Lady’s foot care sessions, the gates are open to leave the barn, or they’re done in one of the big yards, with plenty of space to leave.
We are starting with the very basics- calm touching. The first step is teaching Bambi to place her trunk in our hands in a specific way-nostrils up, for safety. Some trainers use a “clicker,” but to keep our hands free, we use a whistle to mark when the behavior is correct. Right now, we bridge (whistle) almost as soon as she places her nose properly and gently, and immediately reward her. Once she seems to connect the specific placement of her trunk, we will extend the time a little bit on some of the placements. This ‘tiny’ step can actually be very difficult for some elephants who don’t trust in touch. Thankfully, Bambi is okay with human contact, so that is not something we have to work through.
It’s a slow process; we are doing a few very brief (2-5 minute) sessions a few times a day. These sessions consist of Bambi placing her trunk in our hands and enjoying a few treats. She’s still a little uncertain about why we are asking but seems happy to participate when asked. This process will also help with trust and relationship building as she realizes communication is a two-way street.
Photo of Bambi in Yard 5.