Elephant Keeper Diaries

Day 1 - The next Chapter begins

Today was the day that the first crate arrived to begin the introductions with the elephants – Minbu (the dominant female known as a matriarch), Tara, Noorjahan and Esha (our three year old calf, born here at Twycross Zoo by Noorjahan). All of the keepers who work with our girls daily were present and emotions were high with excitement to begin the next steps of our elephants’ move.

Once all of our morning jobs were completed – which included cleaning and the daily animal checks – our girls were given their breakfast and sent off into the grass paddock which was set up with some exciting enrichment to keep them entertained. The safest thing for them was to keep them busy and away from the noises and vibrations of the vehicles delivering the crate.

Once the crate arrived from Dublin, everyone was immediately on hand to try and help the move go as smoothly as possible. Within only a few minutes the crate had touched down and was secured into position. With the elephants still at a safe distance away, it gave us keepers the perfect opportunity to give the crate a good inspection.

The girls were given access to view and walk past the crate in the afternoon. They showed positive reactions and all of them came to have a look. Minbu and Tara gave it a good stare and carried on walking and Noorjahan walked passed it slightly quicker and ushered her calf Esha past it too. Initial reactions on day one, although small, were very positive.

Day 2

Today we started some maintenance work to make the crate safe to use. So as we did yesterday, the elephants were given their check overs, the paddocks were cleaned and enrichment was put out for the girls to enjoy a day on the grass in the sun.

The aim of today was to remove some of the old fencing and to put in its place some chains to give the elephant’s access to the crate with ease. The chain will be movable so we can pick and choose when we do and don’t give the elephants access, this is because we only want positive interactions with the crates.

The reactions that we saw yesterday with the elephants were very similar to today; they held their trunks up towards the crate to sniff the area, they had their ears out wide and gave it a long stare as they walked on past. Esha was able to give it a slightly longer look at this point but again ushered on inside by mum Noorjahan. This is very typical behaviour from the adults as they would be the ones to check something out first before they let their calf go near it.

Day 3

Today was the first day of training after the crate arrived.

The girls have had a few days away from training, so we were eager to see if they were still interested in their daily training activities. Thankfully they were amazing.

We did some of our usual health check training in the morning then changed our routine slightly to give them a chance to see the crate one by one without being rushed.

We sent the elephants out one at a time, as we usually would, and then called them over to the fence line by the crate. Once there we gave them plenty of nice food (i.e. bananas and melons) to make it as positive an experience as possible. We then continued the daily routine as we usually would.

Over the coming weeks the routine will change very slightly to involve the crate. If we changed the routine too quickly it would upset the girls as they wouldn’t know what we were expecting of them. Our aim is to keep training and new way of working as fun and enjoyable as possible for the elephants as well as the keepers!

Once all the training had been completed, Noorjahan and Esha (mum and calf) were given slightly longer to explore the crate. This was to ensure Noorjahan was happy for Esha to be near it. Once they had settled, all four elephants were given access without being in a controlled training environment. After 30 minutes, the girls were so interested in the crate we struggled to get them away!

Day 8

The new routine with the girls has been going well. They are all happy to stand near the crate and take food from the crate.

Noorjahan and Esha’s routine has changed slightly as they’ve been enjoying their time near the crate a tad too much! We need to keep the routine as easy-flowing as possible for Minbu and Tara to benefit as well.

Each of our elephants have a personal trainer – an elephant keeper that will work with them one-on-one as well as a secondary trainer as a back up.

Working with the same elephant is beneficial for both the keeper and the elephant because the elephant can build a positive and strong relationship with the keeper and the keeper can understand how to work to get the best from the elephant.

Tara is the most responsive elephant we have so she is first to get her training, plus the crate that Tara is being trained with is the crate she will be travelling to her new home in. Elephant Keeper Lisa is Tara’s personal trainer and Laura is her second.

Once Tara is comfortable with the crate and the training routine, another elephant will begin their one-on-one training.

Once the second crate arrive on site we will begin training with Minbu who will be travelling at the same time. The elephants will be given their own crate to train with, so they can get familiar with it and feel as comfortable as possible. After Tara and Minbu have been trained, Noorjahan and Esha will begin their training.

The first training attempt with Tara was hugely successful. Tara was happy to bring half her body into the crate – she and Lisa did fantastically. Tara was constantly sniffing and investigating the new area around her with her trunk, as well as enjoying her favourite fruits which Lisa was feeding her. All the other elephants were just as calm inside the house during this time.

Today was a fun, new and exciting moment which all of us keepers got to share together!

Day 9

It’s the second day of training with Tara following the same routine as we did yesterday. Tara surprised us all by walking straight into the crate as she did yesterday with no hesitation. Laura placed a target further along the crate and Tara moved very willingly, which meant all of her body was inside the crate.

What is a target? The target that we use with our elephants is a bamboo stick. It is used to guide the elephants so they know what we are asking of them. We use bamboo sticks because if the elephants break them or manage to take them from us, they won’t cause them any harm.

In this instance, when using the target on Tara’s head, Tara understands that by moving the target further away from her and saying “target” or “move up”, she knows we are asking her to put her head on the target, meaning she has to move forward into the crate.

If Tara were to show any signs of discomfort or unease, we would take our training back a step or two to help build her confidence back up.

Today with Elephant Keeper Laura, Tara was very focused and happy to carry on moving herself further into the crate. She was fed more fruits and some of her pellet for doing it – which she knows is a jackpot reward!

Eventually, the rewards will have to be reduced as we can’t allow feeding the girls too much sugary foods.

At the end of the training, the crate is sectioned off with chain which stops the elephants from entering it without supervision. We have started a small competition today; who can move the chain fastest! Jen and Albert moved it twice today at a time of 7min and 5.30min (the latter time including taking photos for this blog). Can this be beaten? – lets wait and see!

At the end of the day, they were given free access to the pen next to the crate for an hour or so, to give them time to familiarise themselves with it at their own pace with everyone around. Noorjahan, Esha and Minbu came out a couple of times to see it – Esha is very fascinated with it and we think Noorjahan and Minbu were following her rather than them wanting to see it for themselves!

Day 11

Crate training has now become part of the daily morning routine for Tara to make it as normal as possible for her. Once we have confirmation on which crates the other girls will be going in, we will make it their daily morning routine too.

Today, whilst Tara was in the crate, she was asked to present both her front feet in the relevant foot ports. It took her a while to figure out where exactly the space was and she did get a bit mixed up with what foot to present, but she quickly figured it out with some guidance of our targets.

We need the elephants to lift their feet up so we can attach their elephant bracelets. These will act as seat belts during their transit.

We had a few extra faces around the crate today, including the vet team and some extra members of the mammal team. This is not only beneficial for the other team members to understand what’s happening, but very important for the elephants to be comfortable with new faces as this will help improve their confidence as the training progresses.

Whilst in the crate we have begun to touch Tara’s feet which represents a bracelet which is basically a seatbelt, to keep the elephant safe whilst travelling. Tara, again, took to this incredibly well!

Day 14

Tara has been progressing so well inside the crate that we felt confident enough to take the next step.

We put Tara’s bracelet on her front right foot inside the elephant house at the protected contact wall after her morning training, then guided her outside to the crate. Here, Tara was asked to do exactly as she has been doing the last few days, present her foot in the port to allow the keepers to take it off safely.

What is protected contact? Protected contact is based on animal welfare and zoo keeper safety. It ensures a safe environment for keepers and elephants as they don’t share the same space. For any contact required with the elephants, like for training sessions, we use a protective barrier known as the PC wall. During this time, the elephants are not confined and are free to leave the area at any time.

Positive reinforcement is the only method used in our training sessions, inviting animals to cooperate with rewards but giving them the choice to decide if they want to participate or not. This also encourages a positive and collaborative relationship between keepers and animals. Also, it rewards the elephants for thinking through problems and bonding with keepers and other herd members.

During our training with Tara, we had one person targeting her head to get her into position, then targeting her foot to bring it to the port, then to keep her trunk busy and away from her foot we had another keeper on the other side giving Tara some tasty food. This not only keeps her trunk busy but also is rewarding her for doing exactly as we need her to do.

Another newish face was helping out this morning – Billy has worked with the elephants for several years on and off, so knows the girls individually and likewise the elephants know him. It’s important we keep keepers like Billy, who don’t work with the girls daily in the loop, so when we do need an extra pair of hands, we have other keepers to help us out. And as you can see, Billy is loving our “selfie a day” treat!

Day 19

A few exciting things have happened since the last update!

  • Tara’s training within the crate has been progressing nicely, and her confidence is building daily, with a few new friendly faces to desensitise her in a new situation, including Pip, our vet.
  • A record has been broken! Suzy and Jen managed to break the record for moving the chain to access inside the crate with 5.04 minutes! (The day after this, Jen pulled a muscle in her side trying to set another new record…. lesson learnt!)
  • Noorjahan and three year old calf Esha have been given access inside the crate! More details to follow.
  • Preparations have been taking place for the arrival of crate number two.

The main focus of today was giving access inside the crate for Noorjahan and Esha!

The crate has been in place now for nearly three weeks, so they’ve both had plenty of opportunity to get used to its location and investigate it from the outside, but the real excitement will be to see how they react when they can go inside it.

As they’re mother and daughter, we cannot yet separate them for training, as Esha will be looking to Noorjahan for reassurance, so for the time being they have been enjoying training together.

Esha made her first visit inside the crate whilst Noorjahan waited outside. To start Esha went over to the front as keen as she has been with the chains up, but as soon as she noticed the chains were down, her ears were out and she was much more cautious – she’s never been inside a crate before.

At first, she was very inquisitive about the new sand that she could walk on leading up to the crate. She was happy to place her front feet inside and stretch with her trunk to give the place a good sniff. She was toing and froing with the idea of going further in, until she eventually went back to her mum, about 4 minutes later. This is not the time to push Esha and try and get her in further, but was a first chance to give it a look over herself in her own time.

Then it was Noorjahan’s turn, but as she has been in a crate before, she was more cautious than Esha. With some persuasion with melon and bananas, she was happy enough to have three feet inside the crate but kept one foot just outside – but this was to be expected.

Day 31 - Crate number two has arrived!

We were all a bit more confident, having already had one crate arrive so successfully, so we agreed to keep to exactly the same schedule of activity for the girls.

However, although our herd behaved beautifully, the logistics of manouvering the second crate in did not go to plan!

The first crate was at an angle that made placing the second crate impossible and unsafe to work around, so some repositioning had to be made!

Luckily, as the fence line had been removed the day after the first crate arrived, it made this job much easier as it was possible to swing it into the enclosure to get it more central to the fence.

This meant crate number two could slot in next to it by Gate 0.

The lorry which was carrying the crate was getting stuck on the mats laid down to even out the weight of the vehicle, so these were quickly picked back up to allow a smoother drop off.

Once the crate had touched down, the elephants were once again given access near the crates to reassess their new training ground.

All reacted fairly positively, Minbu made one small bash towards it, but was fine after that.

Over the next days we will continue to give access near to both crates but training inside the crates has been put on hold until the girls are all happy with their new surroundings.

Day 46

Minbu, Noorjhan and Esha have all had access inside their crate for the last 7 days now and are progressing beautifully!

Yesterday for the first time we were able to ask for both of Noorjhan’s feet in the port holes. She’s very tall so she did get slightly confused as to which port we were asking her to put her foot through, but within moments and some small assistance from Suzy with the target stick, she placed it correctly.

Today we were able to ask her again, but with a little confusion as to which port, but we were also able to touch her foot with no problems at all.

Minbu has surprised us all and today for the first time we were able to present both her front feet in the relevant ports and touch them too! 15 years ago Minbu was transported to Twycross Zoo in a crate and we wondered if this would trigger any memories and alter her behaviour, however this has not been the case at all and her training is on par with the other elephants.

Esha enjoyed exploring the first crate, we received from Dublin. However, she has been more reluctant around the second crate. We think it is down to the different flooring, different smells and different conditions. She is much younger than the other girls and has never stood on wooden flooring before, so we understand it must feel odd to her.

Additionally, she is being trained away from her mother Noorjhan, and as with all children, these steps of independence can come with some resistance. We will, as always, continue at her pace and positively reinforce her behaviours to help her make steps in the right direction.

Tara is still progressing amazingly in the other crate. We have continued putting her bracelet (like an Ele’ seatbelt, for her safety during the move) on inside the elephant house, walking her into the crate and taking it off in there. Before it’s removed, we have introduced placing a chain over her foot and rattling it against and inside the crate to desensitise her to the loud noise.

Jen accidently lent on an open port making it bang gently onto the crate which Tara has not yet experienced. However she walked, calmly, out of the crate to have a look at what was occurring, once she has assessed the situation wasn’t scary, she walked straight back into the crate to finish her session. A testament to her trust in us. Well done Tara!

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