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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
In a press release dated August 22nd, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), considered the leader in assuring and maintaining the quality of captive animal programs both in the United States and in six other countries around the world, announced its intention to require all accredited institutions to implement new elephant management safety protocols by September 2014 in order to maintain their certification. Amongst the new policies is the mandated transition from “free contact” elephant care to “protected contact,” meaning that zookeepers and all other elephant care professionals will be required to have a barrier between themselves and the animal(s) at all times, except in very specific veterinary or transport situations.
The compulsory phaseout of free contact is lauded in a September 14th blog post by elephant keeper Gina Kinzley of the Oakland Zoo, an AZA-accredited institution in the Northern California Bay Area which has required all zoo employees who work with their African elephants to practice protected contact since 1991, following the tragic death of an elephant keeper. Praising the AZA’s new safety protocols as “the biggest breakthrough ever in captive elephant history,” Kinzley notes that, “Elephants will now have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to participate in training and foot care. Elephants will no longer be abused by the bull hook, be yelled and screamed at, and treated in a negative and punishing manner. Elephants will no longer have to give rides to visitors time and time and time again.”
Although the protection of captive elephants from violent and abusive trainers is a definite perk of the new AZA rules, the legislation is primarily aimed at protecting elephant care professionals from their much larger, much stronger pachyderm charges. According to Kinzley, 31 keepers have been injured or killed in free contact management since 1990. The AZA’s own research into protected vs. free contact has found that “the amount of time (both frequency and duration) an elephant care professional spends with an elephant in the same unrestricted space increases occupational risk.”
In addition to regulating how close keepers can get to the elephants, the 2014 protocols also include mandates for increased staff training, semi-annual program safety assessments, daily behavioral logs for each elephant, and the development of a widely-applicable scale/index to measure elephant aggression.