If your beagle is being a brat, or your poodle is being a pain, you know it’s time to call up calm and assertive NatGeo star Cesar Milan, “The Dog Whisperer”. But what if you have an elephant that’s acting up? Is there an “Elephant Whisperer” you can contact who understands elephant psychology and behavior and can help you to think like an elephant? Of course there is, and you’re going to meet him right here on MCJ.
I’m very pleased to be able to introduce you to Cool Jobster Dan Koehl, who has devoted his professional career to caring for elephants. Dan currently works at the Kolmarden Zoo in Sweden, but he’s also an elephant consultant who travels the world advising zoos, game parks, and circuses on the care, management, training and breeding of elephants. When he’s not spending time at the Zoo or doing consulting work abroad, Dan also administers a comprehensive database of 4192 captive and wild elephants from 96 different countries. Considering how busy he is, I feel that we’re especially fortunate to have him share so much about what he does!
When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
My job is of course partly the work of any zookeeper: cleaning up in cages and enclosures, providing food and just checking the health of the animals. But an elephant keeper’s work is of course much more than that. It begins in the morning when I wash the elephants, which apart from providing skin care, is our first interaction during the day, so this is also the first impression I get of the elephants temperament and obedience. Mostly, if something is wrong, I will discover that during this morning routine. The rest of the day may be filled with information shows where public visitors can get more insight into elephants. Apart from that I may train the elephants, take the elephants for a walk outside the enclosure, and just keep them company in their compartments. In general, I compare the work with a kindergarten, apart from obvious things like feeding and keeping clean, I also provide social stability etc, so no one gets harrassed by larger individuals. Often I also have to meet visitor groups and let them meet the elephants while I’m giving different information.
What are the things about your job that you love?
Since I have spend so much time with elephants, over 30 years since I was seventeen years old, some parts of my brain is a little bit elephantish. This makes me feel “at home” and “with my pride” although it sounds strange. But just spending time with elephants is for me a natural thing, which I love. Taking a walk outside the enclosure is also nice, it gives the same sensational feeling as taking a dog for a walk, and its nice to see how the elephants enjoy it. Another thing I enjoy is the travels I have had in my profession. I have worked from Finland in the north to South Africa in the south, in Zoos, on circuses and in game lodges, and it gave me the possibilty to see the world. But basically, I love the work becasue of the daily routines, some interesting challenges, and to work in a park environment.
What are the things about your job that you hate?
Negative things with my work is separation in different forms, it may be an animal that dies or is sold. Another sad thing is misunderstanding and misinterpretation of different things in my work by animal rights people. It takes many years to understand elephants, and some people belive they know better and understand better after reading a few books and discussing on Internet forums. The same mentality may sometimes be performed by curators and directors in Zoos, In general it seems that many people may think an elephant keeper/trainer is some sort of less intellectual person, just because our work is so physical. Sometimes Zoos are also administrated in a feudal way, giving less freedom for individual thinking. A lot of accidents and likewise are results of poor use of the competence within the elephant keeper profession.
What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
Almost anyone can be a zookeeper, if they are only dedicated and ambitious. But to be an elephant keeper or trainer in an on-hand facility is a lot more difficult. Many who want to become an elephant keepers have very strange thoughts about elephants, and apply a lot of new age dreaming, which living elephants never read about. In order to work with elephants you need to be dominant, clear in your communication, have a sixth sense of what’s going on behind your back, and a well developed understanding of body langague. Spending time with large dogs and horses helps a lot, especially if you have experienced situations of biting, kicking and social quarrels, because then you will not in a critical situation just ask why an animal behaves “strange”, you may know that its normal that mammals show physical agression, and you may even foresee it, and take considerations. Some luck also helps surviving work in rather limited areas with wild animals weighing over 3 tons.
What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
After working with captive elephants for over 10 years, I finally saw wild asian elephants during a three month trip to in India in 1987. It was fantastic to see them, and speak with people who were interested in elephants, having first hand experience and knowledge, without reading books. One of the more interesting things was to see that it was not uncommon with adult bulls in the groups, and that those bulls were not dominated by any of the cows. All I had read by female ethologists, describing elephants living in Matriarchy made me understand that those elephants never read those books.
One of the most funniest things I have experienced was when walking two elephants an early morning on the green parks surrounding the zoo Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden. Since the elephants were very obedient, I used to let them stroll on their own, eating grass or just playing, since thy would come to me immediately if I would call. What I didnt see behind a bush, was a small tent some where some were sleeping. Obviously they woke up, when they heared strange sounds, though the opened “door” in the tent. The elephant, when hearing sounds from the tent, put its trunk inside to check it out, meanwhile I came around that bush, hearing people crying in panic, and seing the elephant with its trunk inside the tent, which had a life on its own, with frightened people jumping around. I called back the elephant, and excused our visit, while the tourists came out of the tent. The calmed down fast and laughed at what wa surely one of their more exciting parts of their journey to sweden.
UPDATE! Jimsmuse sez on 9/24/08: Like a few of my other entries on this blog, Dan Koehl’s interview has encouraged some people with an opposing viewpoint on his methods to comment. If you’ve read this far and are interested in elephant behavior and training, I encourage you to read the comments and perhaps do a little research of your own to help you to come to your own conclusions!
Jimsmuse also sez: Once you’re immersed yourself in the controversy and are ready for a “unicorn chaser”, click on this link to see a clip from the Disney classic “Dumbo” : When I See an Elephant Fly