Posted by: kcullen75 | February 27, 2012

Waiting for Yim

Back at ENP more than a month now. I had mentioned that the plan as it was, was to come back here for around three months to help to get the training program into a more sustainable model before I did leave for good. There has been inroads into that, and some drawbacks, which we will get to, but it still stands that I will be leaving some time within the next couple of months.
In my absence things had continued on with the training as before, only with Michelle left largely on her own which is far from desirable, so I hadn’t expected miracles in the month I was back in Australia. There had been progress, some very good progress with some of the elephants, and when I returned we took it up from there. But there was a feeling I think among us all; myself, Michelle and the elephants themselves, of a kind of stagnation that had set in.
Enter Gerardo. Gerardo is a vet and animal trainer from African Safari in Mexico, with 17 years under his belt and a glowing reputation from both Josh and John up at Anantara Golden Triangle’s Elephant Camp, who had seen first hand the results Gerardo had been able to glean from their elephants in his prior visit, using the same target training techniques that we have been using here. Well, as they say in Thailand – same same but different.
And it was these potential differences that sent Michelle running up their at John’s invitation to observe Gerardo in action. I dearly would have loved to have gone too, but it wasn’t feasible for both of us to leave here at the time, and given Michelle is now running this program, and will be doing so solely once I leave, it made much more sense for her to go. And it turned out to be very worthwhile too. No matter who you are, or what you are doing, experience will always count for a heck of a lot, and added to that (and I can only quote Josh, John’s and now Michelle’s appraisals as I have never met Greardo) a person who is passionate about what they are doing, is passionate about the welfare of the animals, and is just as passionate about passing on that experience, knowledge and passion to as many others as he can; then you have a win-win situation.
In principle, I feel confident that you will find little difference between this type of training no matter how many facilities you visit, but in practice it will vary as many ways as there are people doing it, and there is always the opportunity to learn more, and exchange ideas. In a world (the animal world I find even more so) where this kind of sharing is so important but so rare, it is refreshing to find a person who spends their spare time travelling the world  to impart what he can where he can, and the people at Anantara who were not only willing to have us come but invited us to do so. And the fact that they also invited the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre to come and watch and subsequently also had Gerardo show his stuff there is even more encouraging for the future. I do hope this will be a growing trend.
So as I waited here, going through the daily motions with elephants who seemed to have an idea that there was a change in the air and so didn’t need to take what I was asking with any great seriousness, Michelle was up at the four seasons resort gallivanting with Mexicans and baths big enough for a dozen very small people! But itb was worth it to hear the excitement and enthusiasm she brought back with her, full of ideas and different ways forward. So to get to the chase; we decided that we would put the training program into hiatus while we decided how we were going to proceed. Some of the more outward changes are things such as changing the bridge we use from a mechanical clicker, to simply the word ‘good’, a word we use already often in encouragement to the elephants, but now will be used as the sloe indicator to the elephant when they have done the correct behaviour. This seems like a good change, partly just because of the fluidity of it, and the more organbic feeling we both prefer, but also on a practical level it avoids simple things such as dropping the clicker, having to reposition it, having it accidentally upside down! or even just forgetting it in your other pants. But more so, down the line, with the local staff here playing a more predominant role in the training, I think it just simplifies things.
We are also looking to change the reward used form diced bananas to sunflower seeds, which they use at Anantara to great effect. The jury is still out as to how many of the elephants here will really take to them, but if it works it takes a hell of a lot of preparation time from our day, and also makes the training stand out more in the elephants eye when that is the only time that sunflower seeds will be available to them, as opposed to getting hand over fist bananas from visitors here just for showing up, then being asked to do this or that for a half a banana when they get to us.
Other changes include only ever doing the training with two people, and if there is not two people there is no training, rather than trying to keep things going and possibly going backwards. We will also use the feeding person as more of a visual lead for the elephant, and no longer have both trainer and feeder carrying rewards. This makes thing much clearer to the elephant I think.
The main change however, will be the complete revamp of the walls themselves, which will now be full steel following the design at Anantara with some minor modification which Gerardo, now back in Mexico, has very kindly helped incorporate into his original blueprints.
It seemed a lot to ask, to destroy the walls that only less than a year ago were  built for us, and to rebuild them in an obviously more expensive fashion; but to his credit, Darrick without hesitation succumbed to Michelle enthusiastic suggestion and the very next day one wall was torn down. This left us with the wall still out the back, which until now had only been used for Mae Perm and Jokia, to work with everyday. This also gave us the opportunity to start with a whole new group of elephants!! This was exciting.
The plan was to draw up a list of fourteen elephants, divide them into two groups of seven and have each group come twice a day for three days. Three days on, four days off. Once the new wall was built we would have to go back to the original wall and so the original group of elephants, who by then would hopefully have had enough of as break that when we came to them with these new changes in place, it wouldn’t be such a big shift; and once the second wall was rebuilt, we would switch to doing both groups of 14 elephants once a day for 3 days each on end. this would be a total of 28 elephants no in the program with the flexibility of looking at incorporating the remaining elephants once things settle and we can possibly gauge the realism of doing that. We want to avoid the earlier mistake of trying to do too many elephants at6 once – though perhaps it could be suggested that we are still doing just that.
However, all this became  a background thought for the time being when Thong Suk one day last week found himself on the wrong side of the bed, or the wrong side of everyone really, and started displaying all the signs of a vigorous honey musth, and in desperation his mahout chained him to the nearest thing – our one remaining training wall. He remained there for the next three nights. The wall remained there for one!
All that remained in the morning were four individual uprights of the once proud training wall, each of them quivering in the face of an adolescent elephant starting to come to the realisation there is little out there that he can’t break with relative ease if he just puts his mind to it.
So now we have two eager trainers but no training walls (for the time being) and a group of elephants visiting the site of the original wall as if it’s a grave site of an old friend, or coming racing over to us when we walk out near them as if wanting us to show them where it is they go now for their training. It shouldn’t be long before one wall at least is back up and running, and I guess for me it feels a little more urgent as I am on a limited time frame and am excited to see how these changes take effect before I go. But that will all unfold in time.
Well on that note, I think I will leave it there and hopefully return soon with an update of an all new, all metal, all shiny and new training program with all new, but probably not so shiny elephants.
Until then, take care all …………


  1. Very nice and thorough. Enjoyed it Karl.

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