Horse Trainer Teaches Zoo Keepers Elephant Training Techniques

Zoo brings in horse trainer to teach how to tame elephants with love.

ByABC News via logo
September 5, 2009, 9:40 AM

Sept. 5, 2009— -- 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.

"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.