At the Toledo Zoo, the well-being of our animals is our top priority. Providing first-rate animal care is a vital part of our goal of giving guests an experience that is educational, engaging, accessible, and safe. That is why visiting the zoo has been a cherished tradition in Toledo for generations.
In recent months, critics have assailed our elephant program for its use of “free contact” as a management style, which they claim is abusive. Although we use “protected contact” with our elephants Louie and Twiggy, it is misleading to categorize that process as universally preferable.
Like all other animal programs at the zoo, our elephant training is based on positive reinforcement. Animals are rewarded — usually with food — for behavior we want to see more of, which we name.
The animal comes to associate the name and the reward with a specific behavior, much as your dog does when you train her to sit or come. If an animal does not complete a behavior when we ask for it, we may give him or her a time-out or ask for another behavior before we return to the one we first sought. If the animal still chooses not to respond, we end the training session.
These training principles are fundamental to both free and protected contact. That is why we were easily able to switch Louie and Twiggy from free contact to protected contact. The only significant difference in the training methods is whether the keepers share the same space with the elephants.
Whichever management system is used, the notion that you can make an 8,000-pound animal do anything he or she doesn't want to do is ridiculous. Elephants, whether in free or protected contact, do what we ask because they get a reward if they comply and are denied one if they don't.
We moved to protected contact for Louie and Twiggy because this system allows us to provide the safest working environment for our staff while they attend to the animals' well-being. However, we continue to train Louie's mother, Renee, in free contact.
Renee is pregnant; if all goes well, she will give birth early next summer. Good animal management requires that we closely monitor her health and that of her calf, so that we do everything we can to ensure a smooth and successful birth.
Because of Renee's history and disposition, we can accomplish our animal-care goals and provide for keeper safety most effectively in a free-contact situation. As always, the management strategy we choose is based on what's best for the animal and the staff.
Critics of free contact cite outdated protocols and information and quote nonexperts to make their inaccurate and misleading case. In response, I'd note that the Toledo Zoo's elephant management protocols specifically prohibit abuse. Our chief veterinarian is board-certified by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Animal welfare is at the center of our mission. As we seek to create an environment at the zoo that moves people to care for animals around the world, nothing compares with the ability to encounter them in person.
This may be especially true with elephants. We've seen the looks on people's faces as they witness firsthand how impressive, beautiful, and amazing these animals are. It's something that simply cannot be replicated by any virtual experience.
As the father of a young son told me: “We learn about animals from wonderful nature shows on TV. The Toledo Zoo makes those animals real.”
We've encouraged visitors to make a connection between our elephants and those in the wild. In doing so, we have raised money to support elephant conservation in Uganda. Through these efforts, villagers no longer shoot elephants in the region.
We're proud of our accomplishments as a conservation organization. They are possible because of the support of this community, which we thank for a partnership that has lasted for generations.
Some people question whether elephants belong in zoos at all. Given the excellent care we provide our elephants, and the positive effect they have on our visitors, I can say for certain that our elephants belong at the Toledo Zoo.
Anne Baker is executive director and CEO of the Toledo Zoo.