Sissy's Treatment Prompts Change in Attitude at El Paso Zoo

September 1, 2001

Elephant handler Deb McCowan tossed a biscuit to Savannah, one of two Asian elephants at the El Paso Zoo, which is working with Active Environments Inc. on behavior modification and conditioning methods for zoo animals.

Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times Lucy Gruce, a keeper at the El Paso Zoo, worked with Sunny the sea lion Friday. Zoo employees are participating in a program to adopt new training methods for the animals. Gail Laule, director of animal behavior for Active Environments Inc., is working with keepers at the El Paso Zoo on new training methods for elephants and other animals.

The relationship between animal trainers and elephants has been changing for months at the El Paso Zoo. "Free contact" techniques that trainers used for years began their exit in January as "protected contact" became a priority at the zoo. Protected contact allows extremely limited to no physical contact between a trainer and an animal. The previous method had trainers in the same room with the elephants, interacting directly.

Gail Laule, a consultant from Active Environments Inc., based in California, made her first of eight visits to the zoo Tuesday through Friday to begin training employees on protected contact, as well as other methods intended to improve the animals' care and general well-being.

"This time, I've spent a lot of time teaching classes," she said. "I hope (by the final visit) we have training actually going on and being maintained in most parts of the zoo." The method is intended to protect the animals and the trainers.

John Kiseda, animal curator at the zoo, said shifting to protected contact has been in the works since late 1998. "We have been working on getting a consultant here since early 1999," he said.

Sissy at El Paso Zoo
Sissy in enclosure at El Paso Zoo

In late 1999, the zoo came under fire when an undercover video showed zoo employees beating Sissy the elephant with ax handles. Sissy later was transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. She is doing well at the sanctuary and spends time with Winkie, its newest resident.

The El Paso Zoo has a one-year contract with Active Environments Inc., which was established in 1985. It provides instruction on behavioral modification and conditioning methods for animals at zoos across the country.

At the El Paso Zoo, a small elephant exhibit area and barn have been replaced by larger facilities, which allow the elephants Mona and Savanna to move about and respond to the protected contact techniques. William Torgerson, zoo director, said roughly $3 million has been spent improving conditions for the elephants.

"Gail (Laule) has eliminated a lot of stuff we were saying or doing," elephant trainer Deb McCowan said. McCowan was trained to handle the animals through free contact and is now practicing protected contact.

"Consistency is so big," she said. "(Laule) is now showing us how to make the animals turn and back up -- we need to know so we can perform their physical needs for them." The advancement of protected contact techniques prompted some staff changes. "Two trainers left because they didn't want to shift over" to protected contact, Kiseda said. "That one-on-one feeling is very important to them."

Mona and Savanna have their own rooms in the large metal barn. The rooms are enclosed by thick metal bars and grates designed to withstand an elephant's strength. Through new commands reinforcing good behavior by the blow of a whistle and a treat, the elephants are learning to place feet, ears or other body parts through large openings that allow the trainers to work.

The transition is difficult for the animals and the trainers, but it has been taking place for some time. "The staff has been doing this to a certain degree for quite a while," Kiseda said.

McCowan said she still prefers the free contact method. "We knew this is where we needed to get," she said. After only four days, the results are showing. "(Laule) has done miracles for us and for our animals," Mando Alarcon, a zookeeper, said.

Erica Molina may be reached at emolina@elpasotimes.com

Copyright © 2001 El Paso Times.