Protected Contact

The Elephant Sanctuary was founded on the ideology of Passive Control—our elephants are never chained or forced to do our bidding but instead have the freedom to just be elephants as much as possible. While positive interactions have always been the basis of the Sanctuary’s relations with our elephants, the Sanctuary has also become the guardian of elephants who were treated severely in their past. Those elephants often hold a deep seated distrust of humans that is often triggered by being in close quarters, or even certain sights or sounds.

To address the challenging medical and psychological needs of these and all of our elephants, in early 2011, the Sanctuary began working with Active Environments (AE). AE provides training for both our elephants and our Caregivers, specializing in the use of positive reinforcement training techniques to improve the care and welfare of captive elephants. Caregivers remain outside a gated area either in the barns or outdoors along the fence lines. This type of Protected Contact training (PC—as it is officially dubbed) is entirely compatible with the Sanctuary’s mission, as free choice lies at its heart. The elephants have the freedom to come to the gate and participate in activities and receive treats and praise—or if they are uncomfortable or unwilling, they have the freedom to simply walk away. This provides them with the sense of security and autonomy they need to feel safe while allowing for interaction between elephant and Caregivers. Targets (long bamboo sticks with cotton tops) are used to show each elephant where we are requesting them to place their feet for medical foot care needs, their mouths for dental inspections and their trunks for trunk washes.

The trainers gain the elephant’s voluntary cooperation in husbandry behaviors and medical procedures and improve their physical and psychological well-being. AE designed and developed Protected Contact which has been recognized by both the zoo and animal welfare communities as being a safe, effective, and humane method for managing captive elephants. Thanks to this highly effective training, the Sanctuary is working on labors of love with our elephants, helping to build their trust and improve their health and heal the mistrust they have experienced much of their lives so they can truly enjoy their new forever home here at the Sanctuary.

Active Environments Definition: Protected Contact is a system for managing elephants that uses positive reinforcement training as the primary method to modify behavior; directing the positioning and movement of the elephant is achieved through the use of targets. Keeper (Caregiver) safety is achieved by elephant and keeper (Caregiver) positioning relative to each other and to a barrier, which typically separates human and animal spaces. Trainers function outside the elephant social hierarchy and do not attempt to establish a position of social dominance.