Elephants no longer made to perform at the zoo

The Singapore Zoo is moving towards protected contact management with its five elephants, which means there will be a barrier between the keepers and the animals at all times. Its elephant show will also take on a new format.
Visitors feeding elephants after a show at the Singapore Zoo on Sept 13. The Asian elephants will no longer do stunts at the twice-daily presentations that play out to crowds of hundreds. Instead, they will interact with enrichment toys, with keepers
Visitors feeding elephants after a show at the Singapore Zoo on Sept 13. The Asian elephants will no longer do stunts at the twice-daily presentations that play out to crowds of hundreds. Instead, they will interact with enrichment toys, with keepers outside the exhibit giving commentary and using positive reinforcement to cue behaviour.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

New show format to encourage 'natural behaviour' among steps taken to improve safety, welfare

Elephants at the Singapore Zoo will no longer be ordered to perform during shows, as part of a shift in its model of care for the park's five female specimens.

Instead of doing stunts such as balancing on logs during the twice-daily presentations that play out to crowds of hundreds, the Asian elephants will be encouraged to display "natural behaviour", the zoo said yesterday.

Enrichment toys - which require the mammals to figure out how to obtain treats within - will be scattered throughout the exhibit for the elephants to interact with, providing the show's main entertainment.

Keepers will now be stationed outside of the exhibit, providing commentary and using positive reinforcement methods to get them to do things such as lie in water.

The show's new format, which will officially be launched on Elephant Appreciation Day today, is among the steps that Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) has taken in recent years to move towards a protected contact management system for its 11 elephants.

The system entails maintaining a physical barrier between keepers and elephants at all times, which provides more safety for keepers and better welfare for the animals.

Training and interaction are conducted through the barrier, often using treats and target sticks in place of direct physical touch to cue desired behaviour.

Mr Udhaya Kumar Kalirathinam, assistant curator for elephants at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, checking an elephant's temperature without using physical contact.
Mr Udhaya Kumar Kalirathinam, assistant curator for elephants at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, checking an elephant's temperature without using physical contact. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In the new show, "the elephants will be allowed to be elephants", Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, deputy chief executive of WRS, told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

Keepers are trained "in the traditional method where they go in there and command elephants to do certain things. So now, we are in the process of training our staff to use positive reinforcement, meaning the elephants will want to do something because they are rewarded", he said.

Keepers trained to use positive reinforcement

Since embarking on the move towards protected contact for all of its elephants in 2015, WRS has stopped elephant rides and painting sessions - where elephants used their trunks to paint - among other efforts.

The animals have since been observed to exhibit a wider range of natural behaviours, such as foraging, said Dr Cheng, who is also WRS' chief life sciences officer.

The transition is expected to be complete in three to five years, when the elephant exhibits and facilities in the zoo and Night Safari, which are owned by WRS, are redesigned.

Safety is another big reason why WRS decided to adopt protected contact management, which has become the norm in countries such as the US over the last two decades.

Chawang, a male elephant now housed in the Night Safari, gored and badly injured a keeper in 2001. There have been no incidents since.

Three of the Night Safari's six elephants are already under full protected contact management.

But putting all elephants under it aims to eliminate the risk factor, said Dr Cheng. Currently, only senior keepers are allowed to have free contact with the zoo's elephants.

Training and interaction are conducted through the barrier, often using treats and target sticks in place of direct physical touch to cue desired behaviour.

"Many of them are due for retirement, which means we're due to bring in a whole lot of new keepers. When you have that changeover, there is always that possibility of heightened risk," he said.

Ms Shameni Marimuthu, who caught a preview of the new show on Sept 13, said she is glad the zoo does not force the animals to perform tricks. "It's not so stressful for the elephants," said the 26-year-old healthcare assistant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2018, with the headline 'Elephants no longer made to perform at the zoo'. Print Edition | Subscribe