When Lady first arrived, she wasn’t comfortable with or used to human touch. She preferred not to be touched, and, if we were touching her, she wasn’t relaxed.
Captive elephants need to be comfortable with humans touching them everywhere. You never know when or where a health problem will pop up, and we need to be able to provide medical treatment anywhere on her body. We already need to touch her for a few medical issues she has now (including the abscess on her face and her feet).
Lady needs to believe that human touch can be kind (and maybe even enjoyable). Since water relaxes her, we bathe her to get her relaxed and calm before transitioning into touching her.
Elephants – especially ones like Lady, who have access to water, dirt, trees, and mud – don’t need a daily bath, but we have made bathing part of her routine until she becomes more comfortable with physical touch from humans. In the beginning, as we ran the water on her, we would verbally let her know we were going to start touching her and then begin touching. She was often watchful, but there wasn’t any lashing out or other negative responses. We would begin with her hind end and work our way forward, keeping an eye on her reactions and attitude. At this point, we can touch her hind end, back legs, and manipulate her tail without the use of water.
It’s essential to make sure we always tell her what we are going to do before we do it. We don’t want to startle her or do anything to make her doubt her growing trust in our team. Even when it’s something they don’t like, like blood draw, we always let all of our girls know what is coming. The goal is always voluntary participation, and for them to know they have a choice. Guida walked away from us more than once when we showed her a needle.
Over the years, we have worked with many elephants who love back scratches from rakes and large floor push brooms (when you think about it, they are elephant-sized brushes…). We tried using a small scrub brush on a handle with Lady a few weeks ago. While she allowed it, she didn’t seem pleased after. Assuming it might be the pole, we disconnected the bristle end, and it seemed to be less intimidating to her.
This wasn’t her first introduction to the scrub brush. Initially, we used the brush on her back feet and cuticles, and she ultimately became comfortable with it. Now we are trying to scrub more of her body each day, just going slow and keeping it super positive. We will eventually put it back on the pole (it allows us to reach more of their really itchy spots). We want her to grow to understand humans as a positive addition to her life, not something she tolerates for food.
Recently, during a morning bath, she must’ve been more relaxed than on a day that her right hip was extra itchy. As we brushed and touched that area, she leaned in towards the brush and seemed to relish the contact. As was a surprise to her (but probably not to any of you), we were more than happy to oblige this cue, & gave her a lot of scratches/extra attention and a slightly longer bath.
Picture is Lady *after* her daily bath.
February 13, 2020