Protected Contact vs. Free Contact

There are two main methods of dealing with zoo elephants.  Protected contact means the caretakers and elephants are separated, and elephants have more independence to make their own decisions.  Free contact signifies a more traditional method, where zookeepers have regular physical contact with the elephants.


My local zoo still uses free contact but has incorporated more and more protected contact methods.  It is interesting to watch.  As a child, I remember watching the keepers bathe an elephant by being in the cage, having the elephant lie down while they scrubbed leaning their weight upon her.  Nowadays, the keepers have a partial barrier at bath time and give verbal commands (“ear!” for example, and the elephant moves her body close to the barrier and sticks her ear out straight so it can be washed by gentle hosing, which has a soapy setting and rinse setting).   Often, the keepers do not need to touch her.  They toss peanuts or fruit chunks to the elephant if she completes the task properly.

The Hannover Zoo, which I discussed earlier this week, likely has used an aggressive free contact form of training for their elephants called free contact dominance.  This makes the elephant fear the keepers.  In the first half of the 20th century, people believed this dominance not only trained the animal, but also protected the human.  With more research, however, most animal behavior experts nowadays agree that an animal that is in fear is actually more likely to react violently than one who has been treated with more respect and granted more independence.

Photo: taken at Elephant Nature Park








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