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Oklahoma City Zoo trainers' treatment of elephants helps keep animals healthy

Zookeepers use positive reinforcement to help animals learn the skills they need for medical checks and other daily tasks.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Modified: November 21, 2010 at 7:24 am •  Published: November 21, 2010

The elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo spend hours every day with their trainers, learning the commands that keep them healthy.

“We're pretty busy,” pachyderm supervisor Nick Newby said. “We do several hours a day of just training.”

The elephants know about 30 commands. The sisters have very different training personalities, Newby said.

Chandra is more of an intellectual.

“She's the one who will figure you out and know what gets you mad, and she'll try to push those buttons,” he said.

Asha, on the other hand, is motivated solely by food.

“If you just say, ‘Hey, I got a banana,' she'll do anything,” he said.

Sometimes the elephants aren't very cooperative, Newby said. The trainers have several options, including asking the animals to try the commands again. Also, trainers can use a technique called a time out. The keeper leaves, gives the animal a break and then tries again.

“When we step away, then that tells them that I'm not going to put up with that type of behavior,” Newby said. “I'm going to walk away. Then when you come back, it's a brand new, fresh training session.”

Training all boils down to knowing the animals, understanding their behaviors and patience. And each of the training behaviors has a purpose, Newby said. Elephants need to learn to present their ears so keepers can draw blood and monitor their health. They need to offer their feet so keepers can tend to their foot pads and toenails.

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