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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 2 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!

Day 60

We have been able to keep a fairly stable routine with the elephants. The morning session consists of training Minbu, Noorjahan and Esha all separately.

For the adult elephants the safety bracelet is put on one of their front feet at the protected contact wall inside the elephant house. Once an elephant has entered the crate, a chain is then placed over both feet and gently tapped so they get used to the noise. The bracelet is then taken off safely whilst the elephant is still in the crate.

Along the side of the crates are large and small ports – the larger ports are used for foot access and the smaller ones are so the elephant can see the trainer and the trainer can see the elephant. During transport all these ports will be shut for safety. The next step of training is to get the elephants used to these doors being shut and the noises they make.

Tara’s crate training takes place in the afternoon as she’s the only elephant using the second crate. She has been progressing well with the ports for a few weeks longer than Minbu and Noorjahan.

Minbu and Noorjahan are showing incredible progression – they are still slightly unsure with the bangs that sometimes occur – and with continuous training we are confident they will get used to them.

One of the last processes of crate training will be adding the safety bars behind the elephants in the crates and closing the doors to prepare for move day.

Fun Fact!

One of our elephant keepers Laura, was asked a question by a member of public which sparked up her curiosity: “How much poo do the elephants do in a day?”

Over the last few days we’ve done some calculations…

One shovel of poo weighs approx. 8kg and we can fit between 8-9 shovels of poo into a wheelbarrow. We move between 15-20 wheels barrows worth a day, meaning we shift roughly ONE TONNE of elephant poo every day!

That’s not even including the hay we organise, browse we drag, the sand we shift, the veg we throw, the food pellet we weigh, and the wheelbarrow we carry it all around in!

Day 63

Esha our 4 year old elephant has been given extra time to adapt to the crates and her training. When she first had access she seemed fairly uncomfortable but in only a few days she stopped looking to her mum for reassurance.

At first Esha didn’t have much confidence when listening for training cues so food was thrown into the crate to encourage her to use her belly rather than her brain!

Her training began with basic behaviours that Esha was confident with. To start Esha was asked to lift up her trunk and then lift her feet whilst located at the back of the crate. She instantly knew what we were asking for and quickly started following the cues. This has not only helped bring her confidence up but it has taken her mind off the crate.

Today she entered the crate as far as the adults have! This is a huge obstacle for her so any progression, small or large, quick or slow is incredible for such a young elephant – we’re very proud of her. It’s very important that we keep things at her pace and not cause her any stress.

When Esha is ready to travel she will have her mum Noorjahan behind her so an extra set of bars has been opened to bring her further into the crate to allow space for Noorjahan to eventually be trained behind her.

Day 82

A lot has been happening over the last few weeks!

Since the last update, we’ve had a lot more press attention as we have officially announced the elephants are going to Blackpool Zoo – this has made things so much more real for us. We knew it would be happening but having a new home for the girls finalised has put a new perspective on everything.

We’ve had more meetings to discuss the logistics of the move and we’ve had our first visit from some of the Blackpool Zoo Elephant Team who will also be involved in the move.

Our Elephants – Minbu, Tara, Noorjahan and Esha – have been utterly amazing with their training. We still have a few teething issues but that’s to be expected.

Tara – She is still happy for her safety bracelet to be on and secured in the crate and is happy for certain port windows to be shut around her. The next steps are to build her confidence with shutting the feet ports and eye ports. Tara’s Keepers and Trainers, Lisa and Laura are doing a fantastic job with her!

Minbu – Although she is doing very well, Minbu isn’t as confident as Tara about her safety bracelet being secured in the crate. We are continually working with Minbu in quick short training sessions to build up her confidence. However Minbu’s Keepers and Trainers, Laura and Jen have had some super high moments when Minbu has surprised us all!

Noorjahan – We have had some changes in how we approach Noorjahan and Esha’s training as they will eventually be sharing a crate. Noorjahan is still happy to present both her feet and allow her safety bracelet to be taken off in the crate. We haven’t yet got to the point where we secure her bracelet in the crate as she doesn’t want to stay any longer than she has to. This isn’t because she’s afraid, she just has a small attention span! Noorjahan’s Keepers and Trainers, Suzy and Albert are doing a fantastic job with overcoming the barriers that arise.

Esha – She is progressing well but she still has her days when she isn’t focused. This isn’t a huge issue as she is still young and will have this attitude from time to time! Today was the first time she was very happy and confident to present both of her front feet onto the white bars inside the crate and have a keeper touch them. Esha has begun her safety bracelet training. Since the end of April we have been gradually beginning this training starting off with a small piece of twine and getting bigger onto rope and now her own calf-sized bracelet. She likes to investigate the bracelet whilst it’s on her foot, pulling it with her trunk and standing on it with her other foot! This is all positive interactions. The next step with training will be when the bracelet is put on Esha inside the elephant house and taken off inside the crate. Esha’s Keepers and Trainers, Jen and Lisa have tried their best to keep the training as entertaining for Esha as possible and it’s starting to pay off!

That’s not only what has happened in the last few weeks…

  • We’ve celebrated Noorjahan’s 21st birthday
  • Albert our Elephant Keeper from Barcelona has experienced his first snowy day in England!
  • We’ve had lots of film crews in from different channels and programmes
  • Billy one of our Elephant helpers is now engaged!
  • Not to forget all of us doing our usual daily jobs!

Day 102

So, call us crazy, but as a team we have discussed and come up with an idea… change the crates Minbu and Tara are being trained in! Now bear with us on this, we have good reasoning!

We have secured Minbu’s safety bracelet in her crate several times now without real success, and when we have done this it’s taken us back a few sessions. So we figured that if we changed the crate she’s being trained in we may see further progression.

However, changing Minbu’s crate means we have to change Tara’s crate too as we are anticipating that they may move on the same day.

A week in, Tara is being as she always is – surprising us daily and doing pretty much anything we have asked of her. She is progressing more and more to the point we have started putting the safety bars behind her in the crate.

Also a week in, Minbu is now presenting both of her feet in her new crate. It’s difficult to say at this point what we feel is best for Minbu as this process is really for her benefit, but time will tell.

Mum and daughter, Noorjahan and Esha are progressing slower than the others. Although their training is just as important, they will be the second elephants to leave so we have more time to work with them to get them ready.

Day 116 - Happy New Year!

Tara is now accepting safety bars to be placed in the crate behind her while she is being fed goodies!  The safety bars will enable us to shut the crate safely when she is inside on move day. As in our previous blog, Tara and Minbu have now swapped crates to build Minbu’s confidence about some of the aspects of her training. Tara isn’t fazed by her new crate at all and she’s still happy with her usual routine.

It’s great news because Minbu is very confident in her new crate with presenting her feet and allowing us to take her safety bracelet off. We are yet to attached her safety bracelet inside the crate as she needs a bit more time.

Noorjahan and Esha have had quite a few changes over the whole period of crate training. Their situation is quite different to the other elephants as they will be moving to Blackpool in the same crate together.

Esha has been confidently presenting her feet when asked and now we are working with her so she comes further forward in the crate to the calf area. So far we have tried this training twice with some very positive reactions. We are also working with Esha’s mum, Noorjahan so Esha can see her mum behind her.

Noorjahan is still quite tentative with the process and is testing us all with new ways of training her! She is happy with all her previous training but tends to try and speed the session up herself and backs out before she has finished her food.

Our Visit to Blackpool Zoo

Elephant Keepers Lisa and Laura have had their first official visit to Blackpool Zoo to see where our elephants will be moving to. From this visit they brought back some of Blackpool Zoo’s elephant poo for our elephants to start sniffing and investigating. This is their first introduction to their soon-to-be house mate – Kate.

Day 163 - Minbu's Move Day!

Minbu has kept us on our toes throughout her entire training, but today she amazed us all! She worked to perfection, doing exactly what we hoped of her.

She’s always been one for spotting the smallest changes and knowing when something is different. But we kept the whole morning to her normal routine (as much as we could), to keep her as calm and cooperative ahead of her journey.

We began her training at around 8.30am. We attached her safety bracelet and she walked into the crate first time with a little hesitation, however she soon responded to our directions confidently. Once we secured the safety barrier behind her, she was ready to travel up the M6 to Blackpool.

During the time spent moving the crate onto the lorry, Minbu remained calm and responded well to her personal zoo trainer and keeper, Laura.

Once the crate was safely positioned and secured to the low loader lorry, transporting her to Blackpool Zoo, a heater and thermometer was installed to keep Minbu warm as well as cameras so the keepers and vet team could check on her throughout the journey.

After leaving Twycross Zoo at 11am, the journey was very smooth – it was very surreal watching other drivers try to figure out what was inside the giant green crate. We were behind Minbu every step of the way – our team took four cars, one van and another lorry to carry food and supplies for the journey.

It only took a few hours to get to Blackpool Zoo where the whole elephant team there warmly welcomed us. They helped us transport the crate into position and finally open the gate for Minbu to explore. It was amazing to see how confident Minbu walked in to her new home – it was like she had been there before!

Once she had started to get use to her surroundings, she was given access to another area which allowed her to see Tara again as well as her new housemate Kate. All of their first reactions were very minimal, they were all watching each other through the enclosure but weren’t getting too close. There wasn’t much trumpeting for us to hear, but we’re sure there was plenty of ultrasonic vocalising going on! This is a great first reaction and we hope the positivity continues.

Over the past few months, faecal samples have been passed between both zoos to get the Twycross Zoo elephants used to Kate’s scent and vice versa – it’s not the first time they’ve all smelled each other!

It was so hard leaving Minbu behind, but knowing the move went so well and that she’s already started to settle in really helps our mixed emotions.

Our two elephants still at Twycross, Esha and mum Noorjahan are getting on well with two less elephants in their herd, but it won’t be too long until they’re all reunited once again.

Photos: Phillipa Dobbs, Twycross Zoo Veterinary Associate

Day 211 - And Then There Were Two!

We’ve been keeping a very close eye on Noorjahan and her four year old calf Esha since our elephants Minbu and Tara moved to their new home at Blackpool Zoo earlier in the year. It’s been very important for us to keep a close eye on both Noorjahan and Esha to watch for any behavioural and/or hierarchy changes.

It seems if anything it’s brought out Noorjahan’s more playful side! They have responded incredibly well to Minbu and Tara not being around, and to some degree are enjoying more attention from the keepers!

Initially it was planned that Noorjahan and Esha would travel together to Blackpool Zoo, however Esha has now out-grown both of the calf areas within the crates. For both of their safety it’s been decided they will be travelling individually, meaning our training plans have had to be adjusted.

It has taken Noorjahan longer than expected to get back into the swing of crate training. This is because she’s an incredibly intelligent elephant and prefers to only work with us if she gets something worthwhile in return – usually a juicy melon!

Within the last week she’s started presenting her feet with her safety bracelets on and allowing us to attach small straps onto them to get used to the sensation. Her safety bracelets will act as seatbelts when she travels to her new home.

Esha’s crate has now had a few adaptations and we could tell it isn’t how she remembers it. However her curious nature and her love of food has helped her quickly overcome any nervousness and is once again entering her crate confidently.

We have been in close contact with the keepers at Blackpool Zoo to find out how Tara and Minbu are doing. From the feedback we’ve had they’re both doing really well and have settled in with their new roommate Kate.