Dorothy van den Honert: Find better way to 'teach' elephants


PITTSFIELD — The summer circus has come and gone, and with it the predictable objections to the use of elephants because of cruelty in their training.

The argument in favor of having them part of the circus is that people should see them close up to feel that these impressive animals ought not to be slaughtered just for the use of the tusks that are made into ivory jewelry. I will go along with that one, since fake ivory which is indistinguishable from natural ivory can be manufactured without upsetting a single animal. And I object to unnecessary cruelty to anything.

Up until now, the only things elephants do in a circus are dumb things like lining up with each one's front legs on the backs of the elephant in front of him. Any physical activity you want your elephant to do requires a massive physical force on your part to train him. If you want your dog to sit when you tell him, you have merely to push his rump down while you say "sit". Doesn't work with an elephant. In fact, there is nothing physical I can think of to force a huge elephant to do, that doesn't require something bordering on cruelty.

On the other hand, elephants are unbelievably smart. Until I came across an article in Google on elephants doing arithmetic, I had no idea they could not only add and subtract, but apparently draw recognizable pictures, as well as do things requiring exceptional skill with their clever trunks, like peeling off the outside of a peanut and eating just the little nut inside.

But there's more. It appears that in Thailand they are used to stack teak logs into neat piles that await shipping. This not only saves a lot of human strength but skill, as only the elephant's piles never fall down! So the question becomes how to showcase these incredible talents without cruelty. And the obvious answer is to think up activities that use rewards instead of force.

Elephant 'drawing'

I thought I had it all figured out when I watched the Google film, of an elephant painting a sketch. It took a long time for him to finish, but I sat there, enthralled as it took shape.

Then I read another article in Google which claimed that teaching an elephant to draw required dreadful cruelty! Apparently the elephant doesn't make the decisions as to where to put the brush. His caretaker does that by the simple means of having an electric shocker that is planted in the elephant's ear. If the elephant goes the wrong way with the brush, he gets a shock.

So the man with the shocker is guiding the drawing, but the observer (who will be the snookered purchaser of the finished product) thinks he is watching an elephant "draw." He takes the finished product home, hangs it in his man cave and tells all his friends he actually watched the elephant draw it!

Surely some form of food could work as a reward. Maybe showing an elephant a movie of what you want him to do, with a treat given as he learns to copy it would do the trick without violence.

Giant rats can be trained to sniff out buried bombs, and more recently, they have even learned to recognize the odor of tuberculosis, with a banana as a reward when they get it right. The banana reward is a lot cheaper than having to use expensive diagnostic equipment in impoverished areas of Africa.

If you get one smart animal trained to do a certain thing, it seems that he can often teach others. It reminds me of the famous story about the female dolphin in some training place off the California coast.

The scientists there had a young, bright female they taught to swim into an underwater "box" containing a lot of odds and ends arranged on the side of the box facing her, which you could manipulate. One you pushed, another you twisted, another pulled, etc., and it was jiggered up so that if you did the right things in the right order, you got a fish! Apparently it didn't take any time for this bright lady to learn to get her fish.

Then they altered the experiment a bit. They put a young male dolphin in an identical box next to hers and fixed it up so that the two dolphins could "talk" to each other. The lady had no trouble teaching the boy dolphin to manipulate the doodads in his box in the right order. But when he got it right, the lady ate the fish! The story I read didn't say whether she was ever trained to share.

Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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