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The Dark Side of Elephant "Yoga"

From PAWS Performing Animal Welfare Society
July 2023

Several media outlets recently ran a story about a Texas zoo and its exercise program for elephants that they claim is similar to yoga. No! Elephants trained to stand on their heads: by shocking them with a powerful electric stun device

Elephant Tess headstand
Tess the elephant does a headstand as part of her daily "exercises" at a Texas zoo.
Photo by Ariana Garcia/CHRON

Several media outlets recently ran a story about a Texas zoo and its exercise program for elephants that they claim is similar to yoga. Captive facilities commonly “exercise” elephants because of limited space and mostly flat surfaces that prevent elephants from building muscle tone. Some of the exercises at this zoo, however, caught our attention.

The news stories included photos of elephants engaged in behaviors that are standard training fare, such as elephants presenting their feet for inspection from behind a fence. Regularly checking elephants’ feet – which we do at PAWS – helps to monitor foot health and treat problems that may arise and should be part of any elephant husbandry practice.

But other photos portray exercises that are essentially circus tricks.

A 40-year-old elephant named Tess is shown doing a headstand – a typical circus trick. In a press release, the zoo explained that it’s a “behavior she’s known for decades and takes a lot of muscle control to achieve.” But nowhere do they describe how Tess learned this trick.

In fact, Tess was once owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, a California-based outfit that exploited elephants for rides and circuses. They left California soon after the state passed a law, co-sponsored by PAWS, to ban the use of elephant bullhooks. The bullhook is a metal rod resembling a fireplace poker used to control elephants through fear and pain.

Video footage of Have Trunk Will Travel training sessions, released by Animal Defenders International in 2013, revealed exactly how an elephant is trained to stand on her head: by shocking her with a powerful electric stun device (see video at 4:35).

Have Trunk Will Travel also used the bullhook to force elephants to sit upright (see video at 6:07) – another behavior displayed by Tess at the zoo.

As the zoo uses protect contact management – and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums now generally prohibits bullhook use – we are not suggesting that they employ similar training practices.

But we are questioning why the zoo would encourage Tess to perform tricks that have no application to elephant care – and that she would associate with pain and abuse. If Tess is volunteering these behaviors, that raises concerning questions about how her early training has affected her mental state and why she would continue to perform these tricks. Or is this display purely for the public’s amusement?

Fitness is essential for elephant health and welfare, but leading the public to believe that certain behaviors – like circus tricks – are normal, desirable, and even entertaining is just wrong. Just as wrong as having Tess perform tricks she learned through the worst kind of abuse.

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