The meal schedule for all of our elephants has returned to its regular routine. There is currently no need for night feeds, so everyone is back to their usual timetables. Mara has been eating well and eating everything we give her. We are happy to see that Bambi is also now a good weight, though Rana has gained a bit of weight, which is not in our game plan. Our team is feeding them farther apart to prevent Bambi and Rana from “sharing” their sister’s food and to encourage consideration for each other’s boundaries. Both of them are becoming more respectful of her space and her slower eating habits.
Some of the changes in their eating behaviors are due to the evolving dynamics as a group, but the essential component of their feeding process is the caregiver’s responsibility. We must have a plan in place for which behaviors we are reinforcing and which we are not. There is the potential for caregivers to unintentionally encourage Bambi and Rana’s pushy behaviors, so we are working with them to think about what impact they are having on the larger situation.
It can be common for new caregivers to give an elephant food as a distraction which, in this case, might happen if they are attempting to keep Rana and Bambi from eating Mara’s food. But, that actually ends up rewarding them for the unwanted behavior. For instance, if Bambi walks over to take one of Mara’s bananas, the caregiver might offer her food as an incentive to walk away; but Bambi will probably end up getting Mara’s banana anyway and then take the other food that was given. That is an unintentional reward for undesirable behavior.
We have found that the best way to keep the other elephants from eating Mara’s food is to offer their reward before they move away from their meal. They quickly understand that if they stay at their own piles, they get more food than if they risk moving over to Mara’s pile – perhaps getting a warning head butt, if Mara isn’t feeling too generous that day. Elephants learn quickly that guaranteed food supplements are much more appealing than the potential of food from somewhere else.
The caregivers are learning not to encourage negative actions as the nuances of positive reinforcement become a more natural part of their thought process. They are taking the time to examine unwanted behaviors and attempting to prevent them, rather than having to address them after they occur. This way, everyone benefits and mealtimes are more enjoyable for everyone.
Photo of Bambi enjoying a snack