Elephant advocates are celebrating a new policy by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The policy requires that all AZA-accredited facilities prohibit staff and elephants from being in the same space, with some limited exceptions, by September 2014. This means that elephants in zoos will be protected from handlers (and the abusive instruments they wield) and that handlers will be protected from elephants.
There are two basic styles of managing captive elephants: protected contact and free contact. With protected contact, there is always a barrier between handlers and elephants, which is not only more humane but also much safer for both species. In free contact, handlers are always armed with a sharp, metal-tipped bullhook that they use at will to strike elephants, and elephants know what’s going to happen next when they see the bullhook coming.
Although the new policy does not require full protected contact, as it has exceptions for things such as required health and welfare procedures, it is a giant step in the right direction. PETA has agitated for protected contact for more than a decade, back to the time when Sissy, an elephant at the El Paso Zoo, snapped under the pressure of captivity and attacked her handler. Allowing trainers armed with bullhooks to be in close proximity to captive elephants can go horribly wrong.