The Brasilia zoo was the first zoo we visited during our trip. From the photos we had seen of some of the elephants in Brazil, we were a little anxious about what we might find. We were actually somewhat relieved when we walked up to Belinha and Babu’s enclosure. There was no cement outside, just nice red clay, some grass, a few mud wallows and two lovely elephants. It is common in Brazil for elephants to either be alone, or paired with a member of the opposite sex. Belinha and Babu seemed to get along, he would approach her slowly and she would softly rumble as he walked up to her. There was no obvious fear or anxiety when he approached; he is supposed to be gentle with her.
We spoke with her caregivers, and found that it was one of the only zoos that had staff specific to the elephants, and each had worked with elephants for many years. The staff was very open to discussing different aspects of their care and listening to suggestions about how to make small improvements that would have significant benefit.
After spending time at their enclosure we were taken over to Chocolate, a male that was confiscated by IBAMA and is kept alone, in an old alligator exhibit. Unlike the other “big and beefy” males we saw on the trip, he is tall and lanky, almost looking like he grew up in a vice, not growing out just only up. He has put on significant weight since the zoo took over his care, but has the general appearance of an elephant that is not completely healthy. His keeper talked about the fact that he requires more patience and attention than the other two elephants. They have tried to work with him, attempting training, but he gets frustrated and then acts out.
There is a true art to positive reinforcement training, much of it is very subtle and nuanced. If your timing is off, even by a moment, you can reinforce the wrong behavior. If you push just a touch too far, certain elephants will take 20 steps backwards in their trust and progress. To some people it seems like a simple concept, but even introducing a target to an elephant can be challenging. In many instances you are working with an elephant that has been taught to do things, or pay the price (usually a beating), so getting them to understand the concept of doing something for a positive reward can cause them question when the ‘bad thing’ is coming. You are also approaching them with a long pole, something that in the past 30 or 40 years of their life would have been used to beat them. But this time you want them to walk towards it and see it as a good thing. We truly believe that with the right person, a lot of patience, and the trust that is gained, he will find the self-confidence that he needs to get through training with ease.
Chocolate is a temporary resident of the Brasilia Zoo; it was never intended that he would be there permanently, and they are just waiting for there to be a facility that he can be sent to. We would love to be able to provide him with the life he needs to become comfortable in his own skin again and flourish.
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