Horse Trainer Teaches Zoo Keepers Elephant Training Techniques

Photo: Up Close With Elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo

Despite their immense stature, elephants are delicate creatures.

Their soulful eyes, expressive trunks and colossal bodies excite and inspire millions of people who visit them each year in zoos and nature preserves around the world. They're a self-aware species capable of humanlike emotions: They grieve for their dead, hold grudges, and form close relationships with herd members and humans.

But for years, it's been their contact with people that has caused elephants the most agony. Elephants have suffered unspeakable atrocities under the "old-school" attitude of elephant training, which relied on tactics of fear, pain and intimidation.

Modern animal training emphasizes an understanding of the elephant's feelings and comfort. Willie Theison, an elephant manager and head keeper at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, is a trainer who works to promote the style of combining love and leadership.

VIDEO: Elephants are trained with new method.

"What I try to do is work on the relationship with them because they are a thinking animal. They are probably the most intelligent four-legged animal -- that type of philosophy with domination is going to work short term, but the long term, it's not going to pay off. This isn't the best way to approach these animals," Theison says.

By identifying each elephant's unique personality, reading its body language and adapting his own behavior, Theison is able to gain the animals' trust to perform medical exams or wash them, allowing him to work closely with elephants that can weigh several tons.

Elephants have their own dispositions, just like people. Some are reserved or nervous, while others are active and outgoing. Theison builds the elephants' confidence through games that familiarize them with new people, situations and routines.

"I use a lot of tactical: touching, petting, reassuring her everything is OK. 'It's just me; everything is fine,'" he says as he strokes a 9-year-old African elephant named Victoria.

Teaching Elephant Keepers With Horses

Pittsburgh Zoo president and CEO Dr. Barbara Baker recognized Theison's gift for communicating with elephants, but she wasn't sure how to get other elephant keepers at the zoo trained to do the same thing.

"We can see what [Theison] does, and he can articulate what he does. How do we teach other people to learn the body language of the elephants?" says Dr. Baker. "And how do they learn to develop that relationship with an animal that weighs 8,900 pounds?"

Dr. Baker found that missing link in the Parelli natural horsemanship training program while attending a workshop in Florida. She saw that founder Pat Parelli's approach to training horses was just like Theison's interactions with the elephants. Parelli was able to work with horses without using restraints such as ropes and harnesses, and because of their size and strength, the zoo's elephants were not trained using restraints either.

It was Dr. Baker's idea to bring Parelli instructor Jesse Peters to the zoo for a groundbreaking experiment, not to train the elephants, but to train their keepers to more effectively train the elephants.

Peters, who dresses in a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and boots, sounds more like a psychologist than a cowboy. He encourages thinking in the mindset of the animal and focusing on how they would react in a given situation.

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