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A harmonic training tool

Hi everyone! It’s Caleb with the Elephant Care Team once again! When it comes to training our three African elephants, safety, adaptability, and creativity are key. Recently, I have been working with Msholo, our male, to teach him to blow air out of his trunk on cue. This behavior will ultimately be useful in future trunk washes, so we can better test him for TB. Approaching this new training challenge, I started with a unique training tool that dipped into the creative realm: a harmonica!

Zoo Atlanta’s three African elephants know between 30 and 60 different trained husbandry behaviors. Using positive reinforcement techniques to train these behaviors, we can safely and regularly provide our elephants the specialized care they need, including voluntary blood draws, footwork, and participating in their yearly physical exams. Each year as part of their yearly physical exams, our elephants participate in trunk washes that include pouring a saline solution in, up, and out of their trunks, so we can test the snotty solution for tuberculosis (TB). Kelly and Tara, our females, already know a behavior called “blow,” which makes retrieving the poured solution easier than currently waiting for Msholo to drip it out of his trunk. Thus, a new training opportunity was born.

When deciding to train Msholo to blow air out of his trunk on cue, I wanted to find a way to capture the behavior where I could definitively track the speed and quantity of air he was blowing. Well, the faster air is blown through a harmonica, the louder the harmonica noise is. It was the perfect training tool for this behavior!

My first steps in my training plan included desensitizing Msholo to the sound and touch of a harmonica. This was easy, as he displayed calm, unreactive behavior toward me making noise with the harmonica. And when I brought the harmonica up to his trunk, he was unfazed. At first at our mesh paneling, so he could feel but not grab the harmonica, I brought the harmonica to Msholo’s trunk and reinforced him every time he blew air out of his trunk enough to make an audible noise.

He caught on to the behavior rather quickly. Given a large percentage of elephant breathing is done using their trunk, it wasn’t long before we heard faint harmonica sounds. Once he started to connect the amount of air he blew controlled the volume of the harmonica, this behavior became easier and easier to capture. In increasing increments of blowing strength, Msholo and I continued to use the harmonica until he was consistently blowing air out of his trunk “playing” the harmonica for a solid three or more seconds. He was a natural, and it was fun and mesmerizing to see him figure out this new training challenge and make long, harmonic noises!

No, this is not an announcement for a new elephant-led bluegrass band. With every great training tool, I began to phase out the use of the harmonica and formally introduced Msholo to the verbal cue “blow.” Bridging and reinforcing when he blows air out of his trunk without the harmonica, the behavior itself was essentially trained. The next steps will be introducing saline and the motions of a trunk wash, which he is already familiar with. I look forward to seeing him continue to grow with this behavior and utilize it in future TB testing. Who knew a harmonica could make such a big impact? It’s music to my ears… and Msholo’s trunk!

Caleb U.
Keeper III, Elephants

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