When a comprehensive study released earlier this month showed that social bonding and enrichment activities were more important than enclosure size to elephants in North American zoos, we wondered what Professor Caitlin O’Connell would have to say about the research. One of the foremost authorities on social behavior of elephants in the wild, O’Connell, a National Geographic grantee, has written half a dozen books on this subject. She is also a regular contributor to A Voice for Elephants, sending in regular reports from her Mushara Elephant Project in Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Caitlin is in the field in Africa now. We did this interview through a number of email exchanges.
David: Perhaps not surprisingly, the research announced two weeks ago found that social/family interaction and enrichment activities are more beneficial than larger enclosures for elephants in zoos. You have observed and studied elephant social behavior in the wild for many years; what is your take on this zoo elephant finding?
Caitlin: Elephants are social animals. It makes sense that relationships define their environment and that psychological space might be more important than physical space. Elephants evolved as a migratory species, so it also makes sense that the variation in diet and browse-access that enrichment can bring to an environment would have a positive effect on elephant health and welfare.
“Captive elephant managers should always be looking for ways to improve captive conditions, and sometimes improving psychological conditions can be easier than enclosure size.”
I think this study is an important reminder that captive elephant managers should always be looking for ways to improve captive conditions, and sometimes improving psychological conditions can be easier than enclosure size as many don’t have ability to increase their enclosures. Obviously, the study shouldn’t be used to justify smaller enclosures for elephant, but rather highlight the importance of socialization to elephant health in captivity.
In my experience studying both wild and captive elephants, I would argue that the quality of bonds within a captive social environment may also be an important predictor of mental health and something that should not be taken for granted. I refer to a specific case in my upcoming book, BRIDGE TO THE WILD (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, August 2, 2016) in a chapter called Circle of Love, about the three African elephants in the elephant exhibit at Zoo Atlanta. When the dominant female, Dotti, passes away, overnight, the second-ranking Kelly became dominant and the third-ranking, Tara, (and Dotti’s favorite) was suddenly without her protector and the keepers had to find a solution to Kelly’s food-stealing and aggression. The keeper staff painstakingly worked through the problem and came up with a wonderful solution, hence the title of the chapter. It’s this kind of awareness, dedication and sensitivity to an elephant’s captive experience that needs to be applied to all captive elephant situations.
In the chapter, I contrast the Zoo Atlanta situation with my own long-term research on elephant sociality within the Mushara Elephant Project in Etosha National Park, Namibia, showing that in a large open desert scrub environment, a low-ranking individual would prefer to stay with family even when treated poorly, rather than go off on her own. The dominance situations that I have been monitoring highlight the importance of group living to a social animal regardless of one’s individual positive or negative experience within the group.
However, I have also seen low-ranking females reach the breaking point and find ways to escape their poor social environment by slowly separating from the group over time and starting their own independent families. This dynamic would argue that space does become important to the long-term survival of a long-lived society. And since such solutions are not possible in a closed environment, captive elephant managers must improvise with the kinds of solutions employed in the Zoo Atlanta case.
David: Are elephants hard-wired for their social relationships? I am wondering if an elephant born in captivity instinctively needs the same kind of social interaction as an elephant living in the wild.
Caitlin: Yes, elephants evolved as a social animal, just like humans. Isolation is not healthy for either species. Just as we consider solitary confinement as punishment for humans, we should also be thinking that way about elephants. It is not healthy to house elephants by themselves, and particularly male elephants, despite the challenges.
In my book, ELEPHANT DON (came out in paperback this month with University of Chicago Press), I highlight the importance of being social to male elephants, including the importance of having male role models. Male elephants are much more social than previously thought, and young males are particularly vulnerable to poor behavior without the presence of older males in the environment.
We published a paper in 2011 in EEE, showing that young males exhibit more aggressive behaviors in wetter years when they are not spending as much time with elder bulls. This finding resonates with the 2001 Slotow et al. Nature paper showing that reintroduced young male elephants go into musth earlier and exhibit abnormally aggressive behaviors when there are no adult males in the population.
David: How can your research and experience help zoo researchers provide better support for the social and engagement needs of elephants in captivity? Is this a case where the wild elephants are perhaps unknowingly giving up their secrets which can be used to provide better care for their species in captivity?
Caitlin: Yes, I do believe that lessons learned from studies on wild elephants can be applied to captive situations. I point out specific examples in my first two answers, but there are many more.
David: Has anyone ever observed how an elephant born and raised in captivity might cope with social relationships in the wild? Or is that about the same as putting a human into the jungle and saying, “get on with it”?
Caitlin: Since a wild elephant has to learn what is safe to eat from its family, it would have a hard time learning this critical lesson in the wild with unfamiliar food. That is aside from learning how to develop relationships. In the wild, undisturbed, intact families are not likely to take in a stranger. Groups have been forced to come together in disturbed environments (subject to poaching), and in these situations, it might be easier to integrate.
David: I sometimes watch on YouTube examples of what purport to be elephants bonding with dogs, antelope, and humans. What are elephants looking for in such relationships?
Caitlin: I think these inter-species bonds speak to the importance of having a connection with another social animal, regardless of species, particularly when faced with not having a bond at all, even if that means seeking bonds in unexpected places.
David: I’ve also seen powerful video clips of circus and zoo elephants being reunited with their siblings after many years of separation. They seemingly remember very well and display what appear to be powerful emotions of seeing and touching with their trunks their family again. From your observations in the wild, how powerful are the family ties between elephants? What causes the rivalry between them? Is it true then that elephants never forget?
Caitlin: Elephant family reunions are amazing to see. The raw emotion exhibited in these greetings are awe-inspiring. And sometimes families will have just as intense a reunion after an hour or two of separation as they would after several days or longer. And it is particularly impressive to see how much attention is given to the matriarch by the other adult females.
As far as rivalry between families, in my experience this is resource-driven. In the harsh desert environment, there can be stiff competition for a drink and it is easy to see ranking between families based on who gets to drink first and who has to drink the lowest quality water.
As far as their memories, we are very interested in understanding the durability of memory in elephants in particular. Since they have such a large temporal lobe (attributed to species with long-term memories) and are renowned for their ability to recognize individuals they have not seen for long periods of time, we are interested in understanding which sense contributes the strongest trigger to recognition, whether it is olfactory, acoustic or visual memory, or some combination of the three.
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David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.