Horse Trainer Teaches Zoo Keepers Elephant Training Techniques

"One of the worst things we can do to horses and elephants is be anthropomorphic. It doesn't help them. Instead we have to think like the elephants, think like the horses to understand how their society interacts with each other," Peters says.

Just as Theison had focused on his bond with the elephants to improve their training, Peters also stressed understanding the prey animals' mentality as the key to instructing with care and empathy.

Initially, Theison was skeptical that working with horses could help his keepers work with elephants. "I was kind of like, 'Horses? Elephants? OK. Right,'" he recalls.

But for Peters, the similarities between the two species made sense. He says that since both horses and elephants are prey animals, while their human trainers are predators, the techniques used to train one animal naturally translate to the other.

The elephant handlers attend a series of classroom sessions with Peters, followed by hands-on work with local horses. Keepers learn to categorize their horses as extrovert, introvert, nervous or confident. They practice body stance and facial expressions to give the horses commands through gestures without using whips or rods. The trainers then took the skills they used with the horses and applied them to elephants.

Horses Simulate Elephant Training

Pittsburgh Zoo president Dr. Baker saw the safety of the exercises as another appealing advantage. "We're able to train our keepers in a much more safe fashion by using the horses," she says. "They can learn the techniques, make the mistakes, and still be safe with a horse as opposed to learn these techniques and make the judgments and errors with an elephant."

There are dozens of stories in recent years of elephants attacking their handlers, including at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where in 2002 an elephant crushed a trainer to death during a routine walk around the grounds.

"When they get angry, and you see it all over the media -- elephants stop and turn on the people working with them -- so there has to be a different way to approach that to make it a bit safer for the elephants to understand it's OK that we're here," says Theison, who's been with the Pittsburgh Zoo for 16 years and was on sabbatical at the time of the 2002 incident.

Elephant keeper Brian McCampbell has been with the Pittsburgh Zoo for six years. He says the program is rewarding, and it's helped him to train Callee, a 9-year-old male elephant that weighs 4,630 pounds. By working with the horses, he realized that his own demeanor and attitude can affect the elephant's behavior.

"One thing I have been working on is trying to get him to relax -- myself relaxing so he relaxes -- to bring him to that state where he is comfortable being a left-brain extravert. And that's my goal to work up to that point," McCampbell says.

Both Theison and Peters have seen successful results from working with animals in this manner, whether horses or elephants. Just don't call them "whisperers," as in horse or elephant whisperer. Each trainer insists there's nothing mystical about building a relationship with an animal. It just takes patience, love and understanding.

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