There’s an elephant in the room – that our elephants have not yet joined us at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm! So what’s going on with our herd?
The £2 million state-of-the-art Elephant Eden, the largest elephant habitat in Northern Europe, is ready and waiting for our new elephants to move in and they are almost ready to travel to us.
Keepers at the elephants’ current park and at Noah’s Ark are looking to book in the move date for their arrival before Christmas. Our keepers have been working with the elephants for the past five months, preparing them for the move using pioneering Protected Contact (PC) training; a reward-based system.
PC is a positive training method in which the keepers do not go in with the elephants (unlike the historically favoured Free Contact system used in other zoos) but work with them through a training wall. This humane, safe and enjoyable training means the elephants only take part if they choose to.
As such, giving the elephants time to get used to their specially-constructed transport crate means we’ve had to delay their arrival until we can be sure they are comfortable.
With the excellent work of her keepers our female elephant is now very happy going into the crate (pictured below) on command and being rewarded with treats. She is also comfortable having light chain safety bracelets put on her ankles which will be used when in transit to keep her stable.
Our male has been more nervous during his training, possibly due to a negative experience in his past. It took him longer than had been hoped to want to walk into the crate for food, but with the patience and care of his keepers he is growing in confidence in entering the crate, especially when tempted with his favourite treat of bread loaves hollowed out to hold sweet spreads, Maltesers or treacle – he has a sweet tooth!
For some time keepers found he was only willing to put his front feet inside the crate, not fully enter with his body and back feet. His trainers guessed that he may have had an unpleasant experience years before relating to one of his back feet which had made him nervous. This stalemate lasted for some time, until keepers decided to make the crate as inviting as possible, putting soft sand on the floor and special treats at the other end whilst giving him space to explore the crate in his own time.
The delay in our male’s training progress just goes to show the importance of a positive, trusting relationship between keeper and elephant where the animal is not pressured into forced actions. The old adage “an elephant never forgets” is in essence very true – both positive and negative memories live long in the minds of these very intelligent mammals and affect their willingness to cooperate with us humans.
At the time of writing this, keepers are ensuring he is relaxed with the crate and his ankle bracelets, which is the end phase of his programme. Our international elephant consultant Alan Roocroft, who is overseeing the move, has met with both keeper teams this week as we move into this final phase.
Although the female elephant is ready for the journey, she prefers the company of other elephants and would struggle to be on her own at Noah’s Ark, so we need to wait until the male is happy to move. He will arrive first after a gentle journey by road on a flat-bed lorry. Each elephant will be transported separately using the same special PC crate which weighs 10.5 tonnes and was built specifically for Noah’s Ark for this purpose.
We’re only the second zoo in Europe to carry out a PC move. Chester Zoo was the first and this took some 18 months. In other cases elephants are either sedated or winched into their crates to be moved which is much more stressful for the animals (although necessary outside of a PC training programme).
Keepers will continue to use PC for the duration of our elephant programme at Noah’s Ark. Welfare has been and continues to be the main focus of this project, reflected in the necessary delay in moving the elephants that we’ve had to accommodate.
We’re sorry to everyone who has been eagerly waiting for the elephants to arrive and has been disappointed by the delays this season. Our best intention, based on the advice available to us at the time, was that the training would be complete in time for us to bring the elephants to Noah’s Ark for the summer holidays. But animal welfare is at the heart of the Elephant Eden project, and as the male elephant has taken a little longer to get comfortable, we have understandably chosen to work around his needs.
We are certainly working hard to complete the successful arrival of our elephants before Christmas to ensure they are somewhere warm and well-equipped for the winter and that you, our visitors can see them this season.
Many of you have asked where our elephants are coming from, a very fair question. Purely for security reasons we’ve agreed to wait until we confirm the arrival of our male elephant and then we’ll give all details of the elephants’ source, each animal’s name and specifics. This is quite common when moving important animals between parks to ensure there is no interference or distraction for the teams working hard to complete the move.
Noah’s Ark is open Monday to Saturday 10:30am to 5pm throughout November offering a great day out in Bristol. From Sunday, December 1st we close during the week but are open on Saturdays during December and from January 11th. This year the popular Nativity plays will be on Saturday, December 7 and 14, special days which allow visitors reduced entry rates to the zoo. Normal weekday opening will resume on February 1st like previous years (10:30 – 5pm).
For more information or to book tickets, please visit the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm website or call 01275 852606.