Hanako the Elephant

After hearing the sad news from the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma about this elephant’s foot cancer I decided to post this article I wrote for American Animal Trainer Magazine almost 20 years ago. There are some very interesting observations about Hanako from her keeper in those days:


John M. Regan

            The Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, is a compact, beautiful zoo located within Point Defiance Park.  Jutting out into Puget Sound, the park overlooks a uniquely beautiful scene of wonderful cliffs, tall pines, and waterfront scenery.  In 1992 the zoo underwent completed a major renovation allowing it to increase its animal collection.  The elephant population was included in this increase, and with it came the decision to switch to protected contact training.  In October I had the opportunity to visit the zoo and spoke to veteran trainer/keepers, Sally Joseph and Craig Wilcox.  With over fifty years of training experience between them, Sally and Craig shared some valuable training tips about converting to PC and handling problem elephants.

            Like its unique location, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium has some unique training challenges concerning their elephants. Not surprisingly, space is at a premium. The park contains a respectable variety of animals within its 27 acres and this does not leave big tracts for large species.  The outdoor enclosure for the elephants is about one and a half acres and the indoor stalls, while beautifully designed, do not have large amounts of room either.  But these physical problems are minor considerations compared to the challenges presented by its three female Asian elephants.

Sally Joseph, who has been with the Point Defiance park since 1993, introduced me to the herd.  Sally’s expertise with elephants began in 1972 with the Baby Zoo Inc. in Oakland.  Since that time Sally has worked elephants in zoos and circuses throughout the country, including fifteen years on the road with her own elephant.  She is direct and blunt, and a full convert to the protected contact system.  Since Sally has had a full range of experience with full and protected methods her comments were particularly insightful.

I’m sure anyone familiar with elephants knows how individual their personalities are.  They can be congenial, aggressive, bright, not so bright, etc.  But the elephants at Point Defiance are an exceptionally diverse lot.  The herd consists of Cindy, Hanako, and Suki.  Although a small elephant population by some standards, each presents separate and peculiar problems that provide a real test for protected contact training and the skill of the keepers.

Cindy, who has now been in protected contact for about nine years, was originally purchased from a small casino in Nevada.  Until she was about two years old Cindy was used for entertainment at various enterprises such as grocery store openings.  She soon out grew these pursuits and was sold to Point Defiance.  For the next twenty years she was raised by herself in a relatively confined area until the zoo renovated in 1992.

The isolation from other elephants took its toll.  In Sally’s words, Cindy is “not real confidant in being an elephant.”  Sally explained that when working with Cindy it is important to understand that she does not pick up things as quickly as elephants exposed to training from an early age. Raised in isolation for twenty years and not exposed to any formal training until she was thirty years old, Cindy is timid, but accepts training readily enough.  Her timidity, however, demands more than the usual amount of patience from a trainer.  Although she understands the concept of what she is supposed to do, Cindy is hesitant and sometimes “bratty.”

Suki, about the same age as Cindy, presents a more serious problem.  Sally described Suki in alarming terms.  “The most predatory elephant I’ve ever seen, especially toward men.”  Sally made no bones about it – Suki is a killer, and has a track record to prove it.  “She’ll stalk you and wait for an opportunity to attack,” she says.  But protected contact training has worked very well with this elephant.  Formerly trained with full contact it took Suki a while to overcome her aversion to the target stick.  Once that phase was over she took to the training very well.  Yet bright as she is, and a quick learner, training sessions with Suki require exceptional alertness.  Protected contact training is done in the strictest sense of the word.  Behind her responsiveness remains a “very aggressive” nature.  “When working with her,” says Sally, “you must eliminate any reward for aggression and be extremely careful.”

The most challenging member of the herd, however, was the most recent arrival, 37 year old Hanako.  Born in Portland, Hanako has always had problems.  Arriving at Point Defiance three years ago her peculiarities quickly became evident.  “She suffers from attention deficit,” Sally explained.  “Hanako has delusions.  Who knows what she sees?  She’s kind of like a mentally ill homeless person you might see on the street.”

Working with Hanako requires exceptional patience. “Sometimes just getting her into the barn is a victory,” said Sally.  The trick to working with an elephant like Hanako is three fold: “patience above all, extreme flexibility, and low expectations.”  What would normally work with other animals does not apply to Hanako.  “Time outs are meaningless to her,” explained Sally.  “For an elephant who often cannot find her way out of the barn, the fact that you have stopped paying attention to her has no effect at all.  You just have to be patient and wait until the spell passes.”

Despite such disparate temperaments the keepers at the Point Defiance Zoo have done remarkable work.  The herd is calm, well cared for, and submits to all normal protocols for husbandry. There have been no elephant related injuries at the zoo for over nine years.

So what are the over aching principles for success?  Craig Wilcox has been with the Point Defiance Zoo for twelve years and guided the zoo in the transition to protected contacted nearly a decade ago.  Craig was particularly suited for this task since he had trained marine mammals for twenty years before making an “involuntary” switch to elephants.  I asked Craig to share his advice in working with problem elephants and he readily articulated some sound principles:

  1. Be Consistent.  “You’ve got to be consistent in everything you do.  Most problems elephants have been shifted around for years.  That means different trainers and different techniques.  It’s up to you to remove the uncertainty.”

  2. Set Things Up for Success.  “Too often, trainers fail to do this. Learn to say yes instead of no.  Be proactive instead of having to go for a time out.  Reinforce before a problem arises.  Cindy, for example, will not normally stay in the foot bath for more than ten or fifteen minutes, so we reward her before she pulls out on her own. Timing is critical.”

  3. Learn to Let Go.  “Especially if you have been a full contact person. Protected contact training depends on cooperation between you and the elephant.  You do not dominate; everything is cooperation.”

Sally Joseph is very firm in her opinions about the value of protected contact training for elephants in general as well as problem animals.  After a lifetime of working full contact she is a strong proponent for the protected contact system, but she is realistic about what a successful program takes.  “PC is not cheaper and easier; it’s harder, takes more patience and is more expensive.  If you are going to convert to protected contact training you must take the time to set up your system and hire the right people.  You must understand positive reinforcement.”  As for accepting problem elephants Sally is equally straightforward.  “Do it if you have the staff – otherwise send the elephant back.”

Craig, Sally, and the entire staff at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium are showing that elephants with the severe problems can be safely handled with the PC system.  The zoo has safely converted its training method and has shown how it can be adapted to widely diverse elephant personalities.  If you are in the Tacoma area stop by and see the park.  You’ll not only enjoy the great scenery, but if you get a chance to talk to Sally and Craig it will be a wonderfully informative trip as well.

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