Training to become an elephant caregiver is a slow and intricate process. You have to commit to learning practices that are specific to elephants and you also have to be willing to watch, listen, and allow yourself to be vulnerable with the elephants in order to be attuned to their needs. It is a nuanced skill set, part studied skill and part innate connection. The technical elements can be taught, but the personal elements come from both education and a willingness to be open. As teachers, we are committed to excellence in those who work directly with the elephants. Though we are not harsh in our teaching methods, those who train to be caregivers need to be willing to take constructive criticism and also continue to ask themselves how they could have done something better. Both Scott and Kat hold themselves to this same standard – always examining if they could have done something better. It is the only way to make sure the elephants receive the best possible care.
However, we don’t want to overwhelm those who are learning or make them feel overly sensitive. New team members must learn to be attentive to the many nuances surrounding care. Each elephant has specific needs and the depth of attention you show and the demonstration that you hear them makes a great difference in their level of trust in you. When elephants understand that you respect them fully and see them as individuals, your skill and your confidence grows.
Lady and Mateus have been building a bond as the two work together during his training. She is an elephant who may be more likely to experience fear, pain, or discomfort than others here at sanctuary. So far, Lady has been very receptive to Mateus and he is trying hard to make sure he’s doing everything just right. There are times when he wants to do well and deepen his bond with Lady that he shows extra eagerness. For instance, when elephants do the behaviors we ask of them, we give them food once they are finished, as positive reinforcement. Mateus wants Lady to know that she’s done well, so he tries to get the food to her really quickly. This is charming but not the most critical thing to do at that moment. Lady knows she is going to get the food reward because we whistle (her training “bridge,” or reinforcement) and have given her verbal reinforcement. Other times, Mateus is more goal oriented and is serious. Either way, Lady responds to him – but we are trying to create consistency in his approach, ensuring that he maintains a calm connection.
Lately we have been working with Mateus on just breathing and remaining grounded. That might sound simple, but when you are trying hard to do the right thing with a very large and dangerous animal, your mind might be moving two steps ahead, rather than being in the moment with the elephant. Staying grounded is critical to caring for an elephant like Lady, who needs to feel seen and understood. Just settling into the moment and breathing makes so much difference.
Overall, Mateus is doing very well and learning to be more observant. He is excited about learning, even though he knows the process will take a long time. It is also wonderful for us to see Lady interact positively with a new person, because this is the first time that someone other than Kat or Scott has played a significant role in her care. It takes a long time to gain Lady’s trust and respect, so her seeming receptiveness and appreciation of who Mateus is and what he is trying to do is encouraging. It is a positive emotional experience for both of them; Mateus has more confidence and Lady seems to be opening her heart more.
When we work on behaviors with the elephants, we often have them put their trunks in our hand. A trunk can be dangerous on its own, but if you keep the trunk occupied in a tactile way, you sustain a direct connection between trainer and elephant. Often there is a trainer (which is what Mateus currently is) who maintains physical contact with the elephant while the caregiver does the actual treatment. In these moments, the trainer has a more intimate connection with the elephant than the person performing medical care. Mateus will hold Lady’s nose and that connection may allow him to sense the first signs of discomfort before the other person does. Sometimes Lady will squeeze your finger an almost imperceptible amount if she is uncomfortable or in pain.
Recently, Mateus indicated that Lady was showing tension in her trunk a couple of times during treatment. Scott, who was doing footwork, didn’t notice any tension in her body or sense an uncomfortable vibe, so he and Mateus worked together to see if what Mateus was sensing was correct, or if it was something different. Both Scott and Mateus put their hands on Lady’s nose, which is more invasive and different, but Lady seemed comfortable with it. Scott couldn’t tell if what Mateus was feeling was actually tension or if it was perhaps her nose getting heavy as she relaxed. Because Mateus had that direct contact during treatment, Scott didn’t assume that Mateus was wrong in what he was sensing, as Scott has more of a comfort level in these situations and might not sense the same things that another person might. That is part of making sure that Mateus’ voice is being heard and not diminished, even if what he was feeling might not be accurate. Over time, we will work to understand more of what Mateus is feeling so that both trainer and caregiver can be on the same page. Regardless, seeing progress being made on all sides is positive and creates continued connection.
Picture of Lady