SINGAPORE - Elephants at Singapore Zoo will no longer be commanded to perform during shows, as part of a shift in its model of care for the park's five female specimens.
Instead of performing stunts like balancing on logs, during the twice-daily presentations that play out to crowds of hundreds, the Asian elephants will be encouraged to display "natural behaviour", the zoo said on Friday (Sept 21).
Enrichment toys - which require the mammals to figure out how to obtain treats such as bananas and popcorn hidden within - will be scattered throughout the exhibit for the elephants to interact with, providing the show's main entertainment.
Keepers will now be stationed outside the exhibit, providing commentary and using positive reinforcement methods to get them to do things like lie in water.
The show's new format, which will officially be launched on Elephant Appreciation Day on Saturday, is among the steps that Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) has taken in recent years to move towards a protected contact management system for its 11 elephants. Besides the five at the zoo, another six elephants are housed at the Night Safari.
The system entails maintaining a physical barrier between the keepers and elephants at all times, which provides more safety for keepers and better welfare for the animals.
Training and interaction are conducted through the barrier, often using treats and target sticks in favour of direct physical touch to cue desired behaviour.
In the new show, "the elephants will be allowed to be elephants", Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, deputy chief executive of WRS told The Straits Times in a recent interview.
Keepers are trained "in the traditional method where they go in there and command elephants to do certain things. So now we are in the process of training our staff to use positive reinforcement, meaning the elephants will want to do something because they are rewarded", he said.
Since embarking on the move towards protected contact for all of its elephants in 2015, WRS has stopped elephant rides and painting sessions - in which elephants would put use their trunks to paint - among other efforts.
The animals have since been observed to exhibit a wider range of natural behaviours, such as foraging, said Dr Cheng, who is also WRS's chief life sciences officer.
The transition is expected to be complete in three to five years, when the the elephant exhibits and back-of-house facilities in both the zoo and Night Safari are redesigned.
Safety is another big reason why WRS decided to adopt protected contact management for its elephants, which has become the norm in countries like the United States over the last two decades.
Chawang, a male elephant now housed in the Night Safari, gored a keeper and badly injured him in 2001, though there have been no incidents since.
Three of the Night Safari's six elephants are already under full protected contact management.
But putting all elephants under it aims to eliminate the risk factor, said Dr Cheng. Currently, only senior keepers are allowed to have free contact with the zoo's elephants.
"Many of them are due for retirement, which means we're due to bring in a whole lot of new keepers. When you have that changeover, there is always that possibility of heightened risk," he said.
Junior elephant keeper Nursyafiqah Mohamed Yusof, who is one of the core presenters of the show, said that when she joined the zoo a year ago, she was nervous at the thought of working up close with the creatures, which weigh about 3,000kg on average.
"They are quite dangerous... (but) there's always a barrier, it's much safer for us," said Ms Nursyafiqah, 22, who is the zoo's first female elephant keeper.
The new show format allows for better insight into the elephants' individual personalities as well as better education for visitors, she said.
Ms Shameni Marimuthu, who caught a preview of the new show on Sept 13, said she is glad the zoo does not force the animals to perform tricks.
"It's not so stressful for the elephants," said the 26-year-old healthcare assistant.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.