American Zoo Association to require "protected contact" elephant care

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2011:

SILVER SPRING,  Maryland– The American Zoo Association on August 12,  2011 announced that “As soon as possible,  and no later than September 1,  2014,  elephant care providers at AZA facilities shall not share the same unrestricted space with elephants,”  except “for the specific purposes of required health and welfare procedures, transport,  research,  active breeding and calf management programs, and medical treatments and testing.”  The new policy,  adopted after more than seven months of internal discussion and review,  will become part of the AZA accreditation standards for elephant management and care,  most recently updated in May 2011.

The policy change means that the protected contact system of elephant handling will at last fully replace the mahout style of elephant handling,  in which trainers typically direct elephants through the use of a long-handled,  sharp-ended tool called an ankus, also known as a bullhook or elephant hook.

Developed for use with working elephants in Asian forests, fields,  and sometimes city streets,  mahout-style handling was later adapted to handling war elephants and performing elephants. Mahout-style handling came to the U.S. and Europe with circus elephants.  Most zoo elephants,  even today,  were imported and trained by circuses,  before being sold or retired to zoos.  Elephant acts,  elephant rides,  and opportunities to feed elephants were still commonly offered at zoos until under 20 years ago–but elephant rampages often injured or killed handlers,  and sometimes spectators, too.

The Oakland Zoo in 1991 introduced protected contact,  after a wild-caught elephant named Smokey killed trainer Lorne Jackson.  In protected contact exhibits the handlers are separated from the elephants by gates,  posts,  and fences.  The public has no contact with the elephants.  This precludes elephant acts,  rides,  and the sale of elephant treats at concession stands.  Other zoos were initially skeptical, but protected contact gained momentum after the Detroit Zoo,  North Carolina Zoo,  San Diego Zoo,  and the Tacoma Point Defiance Zoo emulated the Oakland system.
“Over the past 20 years,  human interactions with captive elephants in the U.S.–often interactions in which a keeper has beaten an elephant who retaliated–have resulted in 15 human deaths and more than 135 reported injuries,”  said PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman.  “No deaths and only one injury– the result of disregarded protocol–have occurred at zoos that use protected contact.”

Reiman anticipated that most zoos “will come into compliance sooner” than the September 2014 AZA deadline,  and questioned the “limited exceptions for some medical care,”  since “elephants can be humanely taught to present parts of their bodies for injections and pills.

“Although circuses are not AZA-accredited,”  Reiman added, “and thus not subject to the new policy,  the AZA’s recognition of the enormous benefits of protected contact–for both elephants and people–is of huge significance in our battle to end the cruel use of bullhooks.”

The AZA policy statement,  entitled “Maximizing Occupational Safety of Elephant Care Professionals At AZA-accredited and AZA-certified Facilities,”  makes no actual reference to the use of the ankus,  which might still be used in the limited situations where protected contact will not be required.

But Performing Animal Welfare Society cofounder Pat Derby also read the AZA statement as a rejection of mahout-style handling. “Since PAWS’ inception 27 years ago,  we have advocated eliminating the use of bullhooks,  and other weapons,  in the care and handling of all captive elephants,”  said Derby.  “[Cofounder] Ed Stewart and I have never allowed bullhooks near the elephants in our care.  PAWS’ elephants have been managed with no punishment since the arrival of our first elephant in 1986.  When protected contact was developed,” Derby recalled,  “Ed and I were elated and became staunch advocates of the new system, urging all AZA facilities to switch.  The intransigence of the advocates of free contact within AZA facilities has been a constant source of friction between PAWS and many zoos.”

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