When I tell people I used to train elephants for a living, I am usually, and understandably, met with disbelief. “No way!” No, really! I spent two years working with one of the planet’s most incredible creatures.
A few months before my 20th birthday, I walked into a local theme park and told them I wanted to be one of their elephant trainers. “What makes you think you can train elephants?” the head trainer asked me. I had no formal training, I hadn’t gone to one of the exotic animal training colleges, nor had I grown up in the circus but I explained to him that I had been training horses most of my life and surely, it couldn’t be that much different. He asked me a few questions and hired me as an Apprentice Elephant Trainer.
Sounds awesome, right? Well, in reality, my title should have been “Chief Pooper Scooper” and let me tell you, elephants can poop! Elephants eat about 150 pounds of food every single day and what goes in, must come out. It was a lot of work, but spending 8-10 hours a day with these sensitive, intelligent creatures made it worth it. And while I was spending a lot of time scooping poop, I was also getting to know the elephants; their individual personalities and idiosyncrasies, their likes and dislikes, and how they interacted with the trainers.
I was quickly promoted to Assistant Elephant Trainer which meant, while I still had to show up at 6 AM every morning to clean the giant barn, unchain the elephants, and feed them the first of their two big meals, I also got to start actually training my first elephant. Her name was Ginny and she had been born many years earlier in the wild somewhere in Asia. What I didn’t know at the time, was that Ginny had been torn from her mother’s side as a young 2 year old and sent to live a life of slavery here in the U.S. at the very park where I was now working. At 50 years of age, she was the matriarch and had spent nearly her entire life moving from one captive home to another.
As an life-long animal lover I was very much enjoying my time with Ginny and the other elephants. They were teaching me so much about communicating with animals and how to be a herd leader. At the same time, I was questioning the necessity of having animals in a performance situation. There were several lines that I was given as justification for having the elephants in captivity and performing for the entertainment of the park crowds.
- The natural habitat for the elephants was disappearing. Elephants in the wild were running out of a place to live and raise their families and were being killed because of it. At least the elephants in the parks and zoos had a safe place to live where they never had to worry about where their next meal was coming from.
- Performing was an important form of exercise for the elephants that were designed to walk up to 50 miles a day in search of food. Besides, the elephants enjoyed the attention and the chance to show off.
I wasn’t sure if the elephants enjoyed the work, but it was true that they needed the exercise to stay healthy. I also wasn’t sure if using the sharp ankus or bull hook was really as necessary as the head trainers were telling me. “You have to use it to show them who is boss!” they would tell me and, since this was basically the same line I had been fed while growing up training horses, I accepted it or pretended to anyway. Whenever I got the chance, I would turn my ankus upside down and gently use the dull handle as a way to guide Ginny instead of inflict pain to get her to do what I asked. She sure didn’t need the motivation of pain! She was the most gentle and willing creature and I believe she appreciated my gentle hand when asking her to lift her foot for cleaning or lay down to accept the saddle.
I eventually advanced enough to start working with a couple of the really young elephants. One was not just 4 years old and had been captured as a wild 2 year old in Zimbabwe. This youngster, who I will call Milly, had bonded with her trainer Pete and would do just about anything he asked. With Pete’s guidance, I taught Milly how to walk on a balance beam. Yes, I taught a 900 pound baby how to walk on a 6 inch wide beam so that she could perform the trick for the audiences that flocked to the park every day. I was gentle and patient with her, but, even though the beam was only a few inches off the ground, it was frightening for Milly and had no benefit for her whatsoever.
Another young African female I worked with around this same times was sensitive and high strung elephant we’ll call Val. It was my time spent with Val and her heavy handed trainer that I began to question the way these special animals were treated and used for human entertainment. Val was a nervous sort of elephant and did not handle the pressures of training well. She would have terrible diarrhea before and during every demonstration. She would trumpet in fear whenever forced to perform a new trick. Her trainer, the one I was working under, did little to help ease the young elephant’s fears and would use the sharp end of his bull hook on her at every opportunity. Several times I had walked away from a training session while the poor girl had blood streaming from the tender area behind her ear. The fact that I walked away and did nothing to help Val is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
I very much enjoyed spending time with elephants and being one of the few people in the world who got to handle them and work with them on a daily basis, but I was beginning to think that the way things were done was brutal and unnecessary. It wasn’t until a new bull calf began his initial training that it really sunk in for me.
Roy was the only elephant at the park that had been born in captivity. At the tender age of one and a half, Roy went through the incredibly brutal breaking process that is designed to implant in a young elephant’s mind the idea that humans are dominant. Through fear and pain, any free will or spirit an elephant has, is forced out of them. This breaking process can take days and an elephant that goes through it never forgets that man is in charge.
I had spent nearly 2 years justifying the captivity and training of elephants, justifying chaining them up 12 hours a day, justifying forcing them to perform for human enjoyment; there was nothing that I could tell myself that justified the abuse they inflicted on little Roy. I quit my job but his frightened trumpets still haunt me to this day.
While writing this article, I researched what had happened to the special elephants I got to know in my time at the park. Poor little Roy was sold to a traveling circus in Mexico, where performing animals have few rights and no one looking after their welfare. About 10 years after I left, the sensitive and high strung Val attacked and nearly killed her trainer. She was euthanized as a result. What a tragic end to an already tragic life.
It’s not all bad news, though! Sweet Milly has found her way to a sanctuary where she gets to live the natural life she was meant for. I am planning a trip to visit her soon and ask her forgiveness for my part in the abuse she was subjected to. I wonder if she will remember me?
Photo Credit: Six Flags