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Animal Defenders International

AZA to end 'free contact' with elephants

Posted: 31 January 2012. Updated: 31 January 2012

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The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) recently announced the approval of new standards for human interaction with elephants. The new ‘Protected Contact’ standards will provide greater safety for elephant care workers as well as enhanced animal welfare at AZA-accredited and AZA-certified facilities.

Photo caption: Protected contact ensures there is always a barrier between keeper and animal. Pictured here, a lucky elephant at ARK2000.

Protected Contact requires that keepers work with the animal protected behind barriers and consequently eliminates the use of weapons, such as bullhooks, to control and punish the elephant. It is a system that ensures the safety of the keeper and the welfare and comfort of the elephant. Protected Contact also eliminates elephant rides as this practice is inherently dangerous.

The new Protected Contact policy states: “As soon as possible, and no later than September 1, 2014, elephant care providers at AZA facilities shall not share the same unrestricted space with elephants” and will “train their elephant care professionals to manage and care for elephants with barriers and/or restraints in place that provide employee safety.” All AZA accredited zoos or AZA certified facilities must comply with these new guidelines or they will lose their AZA accreditation or certification.

Until now, nearly all zoos and other facilities have been using the Free Contact system which allows elephant keepers and handlers to share the same space with the elephant while using the bullhook to hit, poke and generally intimidate the elephant as a means of control and domination over the giant creatures. This system has caused injury and death to care takers and trainers, and has caused substantial psychological and physical suffering to elephants.

The AZA decision was announced shortly after ADI’s exposé of the horrific abuse of elephants at Have Trunk Will Travel where elephants were filmed being beaten and electric shocked during training.

Enormous credit for this progressive move must go to the pioneers who promoted Protected Contact by putting it into practice such as our friends at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary, and also to the AZA accredited zoos who became early pioneers such as Oakland Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Detroit Zoo, and North Carolina Zoo.

The AZA’s decision shows the importance and strength of cooperation among all who strive for better living conditions for captive wild animals.

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