Lady is slowly coming along with her training. The beginning of target training with elephants can be difficult- often the hardest part. The base concept of target training is teaching an animal to gently touch a pre-determined body part to the target (e.g., touching a specific foot to the target pole, or their head to it). Once they understand that, you can extend the time they hold the body part there. After that, you switch out the target for your hand (much more convenient). But it all starts very basically and slowly.
Many circus elephants learn, from decades of training through dominance, that if humans put anything resembling a stick anywhere close to them, it is not a positive. When teaching an ex-circus elephant target training, you spend a lot of time getting them used to the pole (which looks like a giant q-tip), and convincing them it’s a good thing. Elephants all respond differently- Rana was scared of the target, even when we switched it to a small stick or took the ball off of the stick and used just the ball. She didn’t want to touch it- and now she is a total rockstar. Ramba enjoyed trying to hit the target before it hit her when she was first rescued from the circus. But eventually, they all figure it out.
We knew with Lady’s past tendency to hit that she might want to lash out at the target pole-but she hasn’t. She is very analytical with training, you can see her thinking, and also considering if she wants to play along that day. There are moments when she is a little wary of the target, watching to see what you do with it, but she hasn’t acted out.
That doesn’t mean Lady has gone very far in her training just yet. In initial training, the sessions are kept short and positive, so she enjoys them and continues to want to engage. They are full of watermelon and praise. The other reason for slowly progressing with Lady’s training is maintaining balance. Because of her need for foot soaks, treating her old abscess, and other care, we have to balance out how much time is spent on training and medical care versus allowing her to be an elephant, exploring, and building up confidence and a better relationship with Rana and Maia.
It’s also important that she sees us adjust her treatment based on her mood. Many captive elephants are used to humans not listening, usually because they don’t see or understand the more subtle signs. So we want to demonstrate to her that we respect her, what she is communicating, and her boundaries. When an elephant sees that you listen to them, they often start to find more healthy ways to communicate their mood and needs.
We try to do target training before Lady’s foot soaks. As we’ve talked about before, it’s also crucial that she is comfortable with human touch, in case of any future medical issues that may arise. We found that she is much more accepting of human contact when accompanied by a bath (which shouldn’t be surprising, she LOVES the water). Now, as part of her routine, we will give her a bath and segue into touching her. Right now we work with the safe end and affectionately touch her backside, her tail, her legs, and her back feet. We had a mini breakthrough this week when she picked up her back left foot and held it up for us! While the foot soaks and walking around the sanctuary help her feet, she still needs in-depth foot trimming. The first step to doing positive, much-needed footwork, is having her safely and comfortably present her feet.
In general, Lady seems more at ease with herself, and this helps all aspects of her being. On the days that she is happy and engaged with training (and the treats that come with it), we do a little more. She is beginning to understand us in the same way we are learning about her.
January 17, 2020