April 14, 2008
Between five and six hundred elephants are kept in North America,1, 2 more than 280 of them in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited zoos and the rest by non-accredited zoos, sanctuaries, circuses, other entertainment providers, or private individuals.
Because of their large size, intelligence, and social needs, elephants can be challenging to keep in a way that is safe for humans and satisfactory for animal welfare. Both Asian and African elephant species are dangerous to work with due to their size and variable temperament. Males are currently less commonly maintained in captivity in the United States as they enter a periodic reproductive state called musth during which they may become excitable and intractable.3 However current breeding strategies aim to produce equal numbers of males and females to be maintained in the future.4
Asian elephants have a long history, in many countries, of being intensively trained for purposes5 including warfare, religious ceremonies, timber harvest6 and circus performances.7 Training can assist in assuring human safety when working with elephants, reducing the need for chemical restraint. For their own health and welfare, elephants must be able to calmly tolerate routine husbandry procedures such as foot care,8 checks of reproductive status,9 and tuberculosis testing.2 Training also provides elephants with intellectual challenge and exercise,10 and can encourage positive relationships with handlers. The use of training to provide care is becoming more widespread in zoos. The two main training approaches currently used for elephants are 'free contact' and 'protected contact.'
All circuses and approximately half of zoos use free contact,12,15 and both systems may be in use at the same facility particularly if they hold breeding groups and mature bulls. There is a lack of empirical data comparing these two systems related to actual animal compliance, degree of access, elephant wellbeing, handler safety and the need for extreme measures such as injurious physical contact with elephants or chemical restraint.
Guidelines for Elephant Management and Care. Buffalo, New York, Elephant Managers Association. (2006)Excerpts:There are many tools that are used in the care and management of elephants. It should be noted that any tool can be misused and every keeper should be taught the proper application of each tool.
A 'guide,' 'ankus,' or 'elephant hook' is a traditional tool used for directing elephants' behavior. It is used on specific points on the elephant's body to cue a desired behavior.
... Chaining is an acceptable method of temporary restraint. However facilities should limit the time elephants spend tethered unless necessary for veterinary treatment or transport.