Animals and Conservation

Training 101: How we train our elephants

trainingElephants are extremely intelligent animals that display complex behaviors and have a very high capacity for learning.  Therefore, it is important to incorporate challenging and extensive training sessions when managing them.  Training enhances the elephants’ well being by providing both physical and mental stimulation.  It is the most important component of a successful elephant management program.  Training also aids and enhances routine management and care by helping the animals become relaxed with critical aspects of management such as medical procedures.

One of the most important benefits of a solid training program is that it provides safety for the animals and for the staff who care for them on a daily basis. The better trained the elephants and staff are, the more interaction and safety the program can produce, making staff well-rounded and skillful and making the elephants calm and stimulated.

The basic formula for training behavior is
Stimulus → Response → Reinforcement = Conditioning.
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The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore trains elephants using an operant conditioning system.  Operant conditioning is a process used to positively reinforce behaviors that are desired and to decrease behaviors that are not desired by training the animal away from those behaviors.  Punishment is never used.  The animal is given a variety of cues for a specific behavior in the form of either an audible, tactile, or visual stimulus.  Depending on how the elephant responds, a positive reinforcement usually is given in the form of a food item, verbal praise, or an enrichment item.  Conditioning occurs when the elephant’s correct behavior is achieved and reinforced consistently through repetition over an extended amount of time.

training2It is important to provide a positive and consistent interaction between the elephants and their keepers so that the keepers are able to give the best daily care to the elephants and to promote calm responses to behaviors and interactions.  Using a positive reinforcement system allows the Zoo to accomplish that task and to be able to repeat the behaviors reliably and safely over time.

More specifically, The Maryland Zoo utilizes a training program known as the Standardized Training And Reinforcement System (STARS).  STARS was developed by elephant trainer Richard “Army” Maguire.  This system incorporates the fundamentals of operant conditioning and learning theory with knowledge of the anatomy and locomotive behaviors of elephants.  By using specific movements that the elephants perform naturally in moving from point to point, keepers train them to respond to a variety of cues.  This interaction is the basis for all complex training behaviors and provides the fundamental conditioning keepers need to safely and reliably move elephants around in their habitat.

STARS also seeks to create a consistent training technique and a common language for keepers and elephants alike.  The main belief behind STARS and the success of The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore’s elephant program is that the elephants are never at fault for any incorrect responses given during the training process.  The core of the program is that STARS is used primarily to train the people who work with the elephants, teaching them to communicate properly.  Keepers are taught that incorrect responses from the elephants result directly from receiving improper stimulus from their handlers.  This philosophy allows keepers to constantly examine their practices and their own behaviors to learn how they can help the elephants succeed in their daily interactions.

The elephant section of this site was made possible by a gift from C.J. Miller LLC

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