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.
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.
"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.