We are totally charmed by Bambi’s silliness, overzealousness, and puppy-like behavior, but she is not exactly grasping the concept behind positive reinforcement training, which can happen for some elephants (and animals in general) encountering that style of training for the first time. Our goal is to teach her medically necessary behaviors, such as presenting her ear for a blood draw and presenting her feet for footwork. We can’t begin with teaching her an action; we start with teaching her the concept.
When Bambi was with the circus, she was trained using dominance. That is, she learned to move away from negative reinforcers (such as bullhooks). We use something called a “target pole,” which looks like a giant cotton swab, and we teach her to move toward the target in exchange for treats. She chooses to participate and can walk away at any time. There are no punishments or negative consequences; she receives treats if she does what we ask. Training sessions are brief– just a few minutes at a time.
Right now, we are focusing on teaching her to stand still, not to grab, and to let us gently hold her trunk. Standing still is difficult for her. Maia also had issues with this initially. She believed there had to be something else we wanted, so she would try to offer us everything. It seemed that she felt standing still and quiet was just too obvious and easy.
During medical treatments, we frequently have two people working with an elephant. The elephant will rest their nose in one person’s hand while the other person performs any necessary medical treatment. One person focuses on being present with the elephant, the other focuses on care that needs to be done. This helps us establish clear two-way communication. We are able to determine more easily if the elephant begins to tense up, which we can use to determine if she needs a break, reassurance, or anything else. They see we are listening and adjusting to what they are sharing.
As we have mentioned, Bambi isn’t the most focused elephant. She looks for immediate gratification and is generally mentally scattered and not interested in slowing down and focusing. She isn’t observing what is happening, making it harder to connect the dots, to understand what is happening and why. Analytical elephants like Lady tend to do well with understanding training, but Bambi isn’t very analytical. It’s part of the reason that Bambi is struggling with other elephants as well. She doesn’t stop and observe to determine if it’s ok to approach them. She didn’t look to see if Maia was eating or look to see if Mara was receptive.
In the same way, she isn’t paying much attention to why she gets treats during training. It’s her full speed mode – she just wants to experience everything. It’s sweet and charming, but it doesn’t always help her. She isn’t becoming frustrated, but she isn’t taking the time to figure out why she gets four treats for one behavior and twenty for another.
Her slow progress isn’t a big deal – this stage of training takes weeks for many elephants, not just Bambi. We are continuing to work with her patiently, and we know that it will eventually click. All elephants can be trained using positive reinforcement. Some just take longer than others. And for Bambi, the newness of sanctuary may need to wear off a bit before she is able to fully engage.
Photo of Bambi.