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Update on Elephant, Belle

August 2020

African Elephant Belle

MAY UPDATES—RE-CAP: After arriving at MCZ last November, Belle has settled into her new surroundings, and at the end of 2019, keepers started introductions to resident elephant Ruth. Ruth is the least dominant elephant; both Brittany and Belle are dominant animals.

The introductions between Ruth and Belle progressed through the next few months and keepers were pleased with the relationship building between the two elephants and continuing trust between the keepers and the elephants.

After slowing down the introductions between Belle and Ruth, keepers began intros between Belle and Brittany in March in the Elephant Care Center (ECC).

Keepers saw some fighting between Brittany and Belle, so they put a “pause” on this setup. After time passed, the same setup was prepared, with elephants diagonally across from each other, and the negative interaction lessened between the two dominant elephants.

Elephant Care Center
Elephant Care Center:
stall layouts for introductions.
Click image for a closer look.

The diagonal formation was intended to build confidence in the elephants and form a relationship between the elephants and keepers. Rewards were given only when the elephants displayed positive behaviors the keepers wanted to encourage.

Keepers also worked to be able to separate any one elephant from the group at any time. Keepers feel confident the elephants can be separated if necessary (due to negative interactions).

Setups between all three animals, across the hallway, have also taken place (separated by bars) for short periods of time, and keepers reward only for the behaviors they want to encourage. In this setup, Brittany and Ruth have followed instructions from their keepers.

Elephants have also had access to each other in side by side stalls with bollards separating them. Keepers engage Ruth and Brittany in a training session in stall #5, and then eventually give access to stall #4, all while the elephants are engaged in training. The same process is done with Belle, however she starts in stall #2, then is given access to stall #3, as keepers continue working with all three elephants, rewarding them for positive behaviors.

When all three elephants are paying attention, they’re released to interact with each other as they choose, through bars separating them. Keepers closely monitor the situation, reward positive interactions and then instruct them to return to training with their keepers.

In the side by side setup, keepers have seen Brittany and Belle working through their relationship with one another with both dominant and subordinate behaviors. The negative interactions are becoming less frequent.

AUGUST UPDATES: In mid-July, keepers started introductions between all three elephants. The process was initiated with the elephants all roaming in the 360-degree layout in the ECC.

Previously, the elephants have had access separate of one another, to roam the ECC, which can be setup as an “open circle” where the elephants can roam freely throughout.

On days when there are four elephant keepers working, elephant introductions can take place between Belle, Brittany and Ruth. The ECC’s open, 360-degree format allows the animals to roam freely, without any “dead end” areas where an elephant could become “pinned” into a corner.

African Elephant Belle

Sessions begin with Brittany and Ruth in stall #5 (the recreation room with sand floors) and Belle in stall #6, adjacent to the rec room. To start, Belle is contained in stall #6, and then keepers open the door for her to enter stall #5, if she chooses. This allows for Belle, Brittany and Ruth to have access to the entire ECC as a 360-degree open layout. These introductions take place inside so keepers can have control of the interactions and any positive or negative dynamics which may occur in the open layout.

Some trumpeting and bellowing occurred during the first introductions with some false charging between Belle and Brittany, trying to establish their dominance over the other. Ruth placed herself behind Brittany -- keepers think either to “hide,” or to show support for Brittany. For most of the time, Brittany and Ruth stayed near the corner of the rec room. Brittany did show her rump to Belle which is an act of submission. During the previous side-by-side introductions, Brittany allowed Belle to place her trunk in Brittany’s mouth, which is a sign of subordination on Brittany’s part. Ruth seems somewhat indifferent to the three elephants in the open space, almost as if she senses the focus is not on her, but rather on Belle and Brittany.

During these introductions, which occur for about 30-40 minutes, Belle can be recalled and follow instructions from her keepers if necessary.

Other keeper observations in the 360-degree layout include all elephants eating their separate quantities of hay, with Brittany and Ruth in stall #3. Belle eats and moves to her hay piles throughout the barn, with Brittany and Ruth moving away from her as necessary.

Keepers will continue the introduction process in the ECC, eventually moving to the outdoor yard, where keepers think Brittany could be more comfortable, in a larger space for interactions. Keepers will keep the ECC doors open if any of the elephants feel it necessary to separate and move inside.

With introductions up to this point, keepers feel that Belle will be the dominant elephant over Brittany.

Check back to in the next couple of months for further updates!