Recon Elephant Workshop



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Recon Workshop Description

Recon is a workshop designed to bring together leading experts and industry professionals in elephant management, behavior science, and animal training, in order to help elephant programs smoothly transition from free contact to protected contact and improve the welfare of the animals in their care. Two core values guide all aspects of the workshop: 1) Animals in human care should be managed and trained with the most positive, least intrusive, effective strategies, and 2) significant professional change may not happen overnight but rather by approximations, and occurs most rapidly when stakeholders are respected for their interest, effort, and commitment to ongoing program improvements. Contemporary information, bold new ideas, and novel experiences will be ensured through varied formats including formal presentations, panel discussions, roundtable conversations, application activities and live demonstrations at the CMZ’s elephant barn and training center.


The main conference agenda includes, but it not limited to, the topics below:

Then, Now, and Beyond
At Recon we understand the rich tradition of elephant training that has been so important to the care and management of elephants for so many years. Like many traditions, the elephant-training methods of the past were the starting point for a new approach to shaping elephant behavior. Rather than evaluate or criticize the past, our focus is on where we are now and the future of elephant training. The methods and strategies taught at Recon will empower elephant care professionals with tools to create desirable and reliable behavior using positive reinforcement in ways that will enhance and move elephant programs forward into the future. Recon will go beyond traditions to help establish a new culture of elephant training and management.

The Buck Stops Here — And That’s Good News!
When an elephant does an undesirable behavior, it’s easy to label the elephant stubborn, slow, aggressive, messing with your mind, etc. Recon will help elephant care professionals understand that all behavior is based on past experiences and current conditions. Given that all behavior is conditional, and that we own many features of the conditions in which our elephants behave, it is the trainer’s responsibility to adjust current conditions, antecedents and consequences, to replace undesirable behavior with healthful, successful behaviors. When trainers accept responsibility for their animal’s behavior, they are empowered to look for answers and solutions in their own behavior, and the environment they provide, instead of blaming the animal.

Positive reinforcement Under the Microscope
Positive reinforcement is our sharpest tool for changing behavior effectively and humanely. The motivation to use one’s behavior to access valued outcomes is natural, empowering and enriching for animals, especially compared to the other motivation — escape from aversive events. Though most elephant trainers use some form of positive reinforcement with their animals, delivery features that will boost your effectiveness using positive reinforcement will be discussed such as timing, rate, clear criteria, type, quantity, and individuality.

The Unaffordable Price of Punishment
Punishment works, by definition, to reduce behavior it follows but at a cost. Punishment puts our animals at risk for four detrimental side effects: 1) Escape/avoidance behavior, 2) aggression, 3) apathy, and 4) phobias. Fortunately, there are powerful alternatives to punishment when behavior reduction is the goal. These strategies will be discussed and include antecedent management, differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors, and behavioral momentum.

Safety: Behind the Yellow Line
Close contact is not a necessary feature to successfully train elephants. Training at a distance, “remote training”, doesn’t need to compromise your husbandry, medical or enrichment training goals. With new guidelines encouraging the management and training of elephants at zoological facilities, it becomes increasingly more important to be able to shape behavior of elephants from a safe distance…behind the yellow line. Training elephants to perform behavior on exhibit hundreds of feet away, remote training, is an essential skill tool for all elephant care professionals. Attendees at Recon will learn how to promote reliable behavior from behind the yellow line, which can greatly enhance control when there is a need to work in closer proximity.

I Eat, I Drink, I Control
A mountain of scientific data provides evidence that control is a primary reinforcer, a survival need, just like food and water. Operating on the environment is what behavior has evolved to do. When we block animals from a life-style of control, we necessarily block behavioral and emotional health. It may seem counter-intuitive, but giving animals more control actually creates an environment where trainers can achieve more reliable behavior. For instance, giving an elephant the ability to leave an ERD anytime she wants encourages the elephant to stay in the ERD as long as the reinforcers make it worth the behavior. When you take away choice and control by locking an elephant in an ERD the animal may be less likely to enter the ERD again in the future. Providing choice and control can increase reliable behavior and improve animal welfare. However, there may be times when elephant care professionals simply have to restrict an elephant’s choice and control and restrain the animal for its own health or safety. An animal with an abundant history of choice and control in their daily lives will be more resilient and more likely to bounce back quickly after the rare occurrence of loosing choice and control.

You Say Potatoes but I say…We Need Common language
With several variations of management styles in the elephant care and management vernacular today, the attendees at Recon will work together to operationalize a common set of terminology regarding the continuum from fully free to fully protected contact, which can be presented to the AZA for their consideration.

Again…and again…and again
For years elephant care professionals have considered what motivates elephants to perform stereotypic behavior and how to deal with this frustrating behavioral issue. The Applied Behavior Analysis model including functional assessment, functional analysis, and a targeted replacement behavior approach will be discussed along with presenters’ personal case studies in which they will highlight the challenges and success they have experienced working with elephants who engage in repetitive behaviors.

Where’s My Sistah? Herd births
Herd births are a primary goal of a successful breeding program, but not every elephant or elephant program can celebrate successful herd births. The challenges and liabilities associated with the process of natural birthing are complex, to say the least. Plus, the programmatic goals of getting a living calf on the ground often confound the issues and limit discussions and considerations. However, these important points are worth discussing. Experts at Recon will share thoughts, experiences and strategies that will benefit everyone with an interest in natural, unrestrained, birthing.


Workshop Abstracts

Recon Abstracts

Presenter: Steve Martin

Motivating Operations
In this presentation, the construct of motivation will be explored. A motivated animal is operationalized as one who engages in the training dialogue with quick response to discriminative stimuli. Historically, force and coercion were the tools used to motivate animals in zoological settings. Fortunately, those methods are being replaced with more positive approaches. But, even with the current ground swell of positive reinforcement training in the zoological field, there is much mythology and poor training practices surrounding the need to motivate animals. These include putting the blame on the animal, misrepresenting scientific principals, unnecessarily restricting diets, unclear communication and more. Fortunately, there is an emerging technology based on antecedent arrangement and positive reinforcement that allows trainers to successfully work with well-motivated animals. Key components of this technology include sensitive reading of body language, empowering animals with more choice and control in their environment, high rates of reinforcement, and clear communication of criteria. With these components, welfare is increased as animals learn to use their behavior more effectively to gain positive reinforcement.

Presenter: Susan Friedman

Do Elephant Learn Differently than Other Species?
Given the incredible diversity of animal life on the planet it is easy to overlook a particularly spectacular commonality — we all learn. Learning, defined as behavior change due to experience, is an evolved, rapid response system to the demands of an ever-changing environment. In this session the fundamental principles and procedures of learning will be discussed from an applied behavior analysis point of view. Topics include an overview of the relevance of behavior-change science to training, research evidence that control is a primary reinforcer, ethical considerations for selecting behavior change procedures, functional assessment, and intervention strategies.

Presenter Gerardo Martinez

Positive reinforcement as an alternative of support in the traditional management of elephants in Southeast Asia
Africam Safari, Puebla-Mexico
In Asia, about 16,000 elephants are currently maintained in captivity for a variety of purposes: logging, tourism, cultural and religious activities, and transportation. Furthermore, the training that they have received for these tasks has always been a subject of discussion because of the aggressive methods often used.

The “mahouts”, whom are the people that handle the elephants, have ancient training methods that have evolved not only in a dangerous labor , but mournfully in the necessity to sometimes impose certain degree of firmness and roughness directed towards the elephants. What is surprising though is that this practice of intimidation has not changed throughout the years despite the long list of injuries and fatalities of mahouts, passersby, and elephants alike, arguably attributed directly to the use of these practices.

That is why Africam Safari and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, has been teaching mahouts from 5 countries of Southeast Asia in how to handle their elephants through the use of safe and harmless methods and how to convince the elephants to cooperate voluntarily without being threatened or harmed in order to receive the proper care they need. The most difficult task of this “Positive Reinforcement Project” has been to convince the mahouts, whom are talented and with invaluable skills, to let go of the practices they have been taught and have been following for many centuries. Nonetheless, many of them have been very receptive of our work, and we have achieved remarkable results with both, the mahouts and their elephants.

When Safety Matters
Africam Safari, Puebla-Mexico
Working with elephants involves not only a huge challenge but also an enormous responsibility especially when safety issues are related to the success of the management program. The size, strength, body weight, temperament and social and physical requirements of elephants make them an exemplary species that calls for extra effort to provide them the best care. The complex, permanent and mandatory individual needs obligate us to establish safety methods to work with them effectively in controlled environments. Some basic, easy to follow protocols and low cost facilities can safely guide professionals working with elephants and thus reduce the likelihood of injury, accident or something even worse. These protocols have the added advantage expedited routines even for potentially dangerous and uncomfortable procedures as necessary, despite the physical or mental condition of the elephant.

Presenter: Mike McClure

Mindsets About Elephant Training and Their Impacts on Team Cohesion and Elephant Welfare
The mindset of a trainer can make the difference between creating a positive learning opportunity that augments behavior change and creating a frustrating interaction that blocks progress. However, the presence of unconscious biases and patterns in our own behaviors are not always easy to identify and correct. Understanding our perceptions and how we think about our own behavior both as individuals and as team members allows us to change our impacts on the training process in a way that then creates a more effective outcome on many levels.

Communicating With Elephants: Improving Control by Creating Clarity on Both Sides of the Bollards
Properly interpreting subtle responses from an elephant is the key to enabling trainers to effectively shape behavior, while misinterpreting behavioral intent can create negative and sometimes aggressive responses. Controlling our body postures and movements to prevent projecting internal emotional states is vital to building an elephant’s receptivity to unfamiliar stimuli which then enables them to adapt to unexpected husbandry needs and changing environments. This improved ability to cope with change creates the foundation that will help to better insure success in both daily management and critical care situations. By combining effective behavior analysis with an ability to control our own physical responses during our interactions with elephants, we are able to both accelerate learning and avoid inadvertently reinforcing unwanted behaviors. Topics covered will include how to shape patterns of behavior by using the “5C” approach: Control, Clarity, Consistency, Calmness and Compassion.

Presenter: Gerry Creighton

INTO THE FUTURE: The evolution of Dublin Zoo’s Asian elephant programme
Most visitors who wander along Dublin Zoo’s inspiring Kaziranga Forest Trail will be
unaware of the meticulous planning that went into the creation of this Asian
elephant habitat, an ambitious project that began over ten years ago with the
founding of a new breeding herd in Dublin. This is the story of how the habitat
evolved and how our approach to elephant care has changed. Each element of the
design and husbandry has been based on our understanding of elephant biology
and behaviour, and we continue to learn how best to provide for their natural needs.

Presenters: SG Friedman, Ph.D. and Maura Davis

Abstract: Connecting Functional Behavior Assessment to Intervention: Replacing Repetitive, Stereotypic and Self Injurious Behavior
Repetitive, stereotypic and self injurious behaviors are on the top of the list of frustrating and worrisome behavior keepers often feel least empowered to address. As a result, the medical model often takes precedence. Pharmacological approaches (e.g. fluoxetine) have been shown to be somewhat effective but do not treat the underlying environmental stimuli that set the occasion for the behavior or the consequences that maintain it. In this presentation, the behavior analytic model of functional assessment and intervention design will be discussed with case studies illustrating the effectiveness of this approach for replacing unwanted behaviors with alternative behaviors and for teaching new skills.

Presenters: Ilana Cobban and Jeremy Dillon

Choice and Control: What does that look like?
When working with our animals those two words, choice and control, can feel like a “four letter” word. In this presentation we will go into more detail about what giving your animals’ choice and control can look like during training sessions and in their daily lives. We will also show, even if it seems counterintuitive, that when done effectively offering more choice and control will create more resilient and eager participants in all aspects of the animals care. After a short lecture session we will demonstrate some of these examples in our barn.

Presenter: Jason Bredahl

Remote training, it’s okay to step back
Elephant training has traditionally been a close contact profession but the captive elephant industry standards continue to evolve with a focus on safely. Shaping elephant behavior from a safe distance is one training tool that elephant care professionals can use to promote unique opportunities for elephants, guests and staff. Some of the benefits discussed will be safety, developing a new way for trainers and elephants to think (i.e. teaching an elephant it’s okay to step back and away from a trainer), guest WOW experiences through natural behaviors, and increasing exhibit use by the elephant. On site demonstrations of remote behavior training will take place after the presentation.

Presenter: Jeremy Dillon

Setting up Your Action Plan
Making a plan is the most important part of any idea you want to implement. During this workshop there will be a lot of information spurring new ideas and thoughts. We also recognize that every facility’s path will be different. Our goal is to not only plant the seeds of new ideas but to also give you a clear plan on how to achieve your goals. In this presentation we will take time to discuss many of the different things that you may encounter on your way to achieving your goals. This will give you a framework to design your action plan once you leave the conference and go back to your facility.

Presenter: Maura Davis

To Get Yes More, Make “No” An Option
Our commitment to giving animals a bigger voice through choice and control is not without its challenges. When training behaviors that are invasive, or otherwise put animals in vulnerable positions, the path to choice and control can seem very narrow. The AZA mandate to train elephants to allow restraint, in other words to give up control, is one example. Training elephants to be active participants in the process of being restrained and to remain calm and confident in restraints is necessary as a back-up plan for treatment during serious injury and illness. In this presentation, a tethering procedure will be discussed that maximizes animal choice and control by setting up clear antecedents and training elephants to deliver a “stop cue” to communicate to the trainer they want us to stop doing before they experience stress, discomfort or confusion. The question to be answered is, can the use of antecedent arrangement and a stop cue continue to provide animals the ultimate control even while completely restrained, and does this control help us advance our training goals?

Presenter: Les O’Brien

Herd Births: Connecting wild observations and science to captivity
Who knows how to be an elephant better than an elephant? Over the evolutionary history of elephants, herd births have been an integral part of calf survival. As elephants were brought into captivity, management strategies steered away from this practice. But should that be the norm now? Using the ethological science and natural history as a baseline, we will explore opportunities were we can better create environments that increase the likelihood of desired outcomes with zero human interference. Real life examples and explanations of the importance of herd births and the associated philosophies will be shared. Understanding that the overall goal is far deeper than just producing a breathing elephant, but producing a behavioural, functional being whose most important influences come from its mother and family members.

Myths and Misnomers: Moving obstacles on the pathway to success
Foundational understanding of behavioural models is essential to working with the elephants in our care cooperatively. Patience and understanding creates training environments where all parties can flourish. Diving into the importance of scheduled effects and environmental antecedents that accelerate learning curves without compromising safety is examined, as is how understanding basic behavioural models and how they work together in our training. Trainers are encouraged to take time to realize that reinforcement does NOT end the moment food has left your hand and learn the real power of observation during those reinforcement moments. Discarding misnomers to better understand our training partners(elephants) and learning how to embrace their biological needs and accept them harmoniously is a key component of training. Overviews and refreshers will help refocus trainers’ attention to the deeper explanation along with ideas


Speaker Bios

Biographical sketches of speakers at this Workshop:


Steve Martin

Steve Martin began his professional animal training career when he set up the first of its kind, free-flight bird show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. The show gained world acclaim for its unique ability to combine the entertainment of birds performing natural behaviors with inspirational conservation messages.

In 1984 Steve Martin began teaching animal keepers the art and science of behavior change to enhance the husbandry, enrichment, and behavioral management of exhibit animals. He has now served as an animal behavior and visitor experience consultant for over 120 zoological facilities in more than 20 countries. Steve spends about 200 days each year consulting, lecturing, and conducting aninal training workshops. Steve is an instructor at the AZA Animal Training School, a member of the AZA Animal Welfare Committee, and a Trustee with the World Parrot Trust. He is also President of Natural Encounters, Inc., a company of over 40 professional animal trainers that provide a wide variety of animal behavior and educational services to the zoolgical world (

Susan Friedman, PH.D.

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. She has helped pioneer the cross-species application of behavior analysis to animals, using the same humane philosophy and scientifically sound teaching technology that has been so effective with human learners. Susan has co-authored chapters on behavior change in four veterinary texts, and her popular articles have been translated into 13 languages. She gives seminars on animal learning at conferences and zoos around the world, is a member of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo faculty, and teaches yearly hands-on animal training workshops with Steve Martin ( Susan is the Parrot Division Chairperson of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of American Humane Association (AHA) Film and TV Unit, and a member in good standing of ABAI, AZA, ABMA and IAATE. This year she was included on the Vet Tech College’s list of “15 Animal Professors to Know.” Susan’s acclaimed on-line course, Living and Learning with Animals for behavior professionals, has provided even wider dissemination of effective, humane behavior change practices to students in over 30 countries (

Jason Bredahl

Jason has been working in the zoo industry for nearly 20 years and working directly with elephants for over 18 years. Upon completing his undergraduate degree he began his zoo career at the Topeka Zoo where his initial spark working with elephants in protected contact began. In 1999 he took an opportunity to move to Colorado and to continue to develop his skills working elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ) in Colorado Springs, CO. Since arriving at CMZ, he has worked as an elephant keeper, training coordinator and currently as the Elephant Manager. He has assisted in planning, facilitating and guiding multiple elephants and elephant care professionals from free contact to protected contact management systems. Recently, Jason co-managed the construction of a new elephant facility at CMZ with the goal of providing innovative ways for elephants and staff to work safely and efficiently in protected contact settings.

Jason is committed to using operant conditioning techniques with positive reinforcement as the foundation to all training. This approach gives elephants the power of choice by asking elephants to actively participate in their care. By holding to these values, he has helped shape the evolution of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s elephant program and these values will continue to be the program’s driving force for the future.

Maura Davis

After graduating from College of Charleston in South Carolina in 2007, Maura began working with dolphins for the first three years of her career gaining a foundation in operant conditioning with a focus on positive reinforcement. Maura changed gears in 2010 and took a job working with African elephants at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo where she has been working for the past five years and is the senior trainer in the department. The program at Lowry Park Zoo focuses on the cooperation and participation with the six African elephants in a protected contact setting working with positive reinforcement. Through natural breeding we have had two female calves (the second born with the other herd members present) in the last few years and continue to focus on managing the group as naturally as possible. Members of the herd came from different backgrounds but all have successfully transitioned to this style of management and training and continue to make strides everyday. Maura plans to continue her work with elephants in the same capacity in the future.

Jeremy Dillon

In 2003, Jeremy started his zoo keeping career as an intern at the Denver Zoo just before graduating from Colorado State University with a Bachelors degree in Zoology. In 2004, he was hired on as a full time Roving Keeper at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and then promoted to Lead Keeper of the Giraffe barn where he cared for a herd of approximately 20 giraffe. It was during this time that he began to develop his interest and expertise with positive reinforcement training. In 2010, Jeremy took a Supervisor position at the Dallas Zoo managing the hoofstock collection for the new “Giants of the Savanna” exhibit. During this time he was involved in successfully integrating 6 species (Elephants, Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, Ostrich, and guinea fowl) into a 4-acre mixed species exhibit. He returned to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 2013 as Animal Behavior Programs Manager overseeing zoo-wide animal training and enrichment programs.

Throughout Jeremy’s career he has always looked to further his positive reinforcement training skills and knowledge of animal behavior through courses, workshops and mentors. In his current position, he strives to teach the CMZ staff not only to be keepers but how to be animal behaviorists whose application of training techniques are rooted strongly in building trusting relationships through the use of positive reinforcement.

Dr. Gerardo Martinez

Gerardo is a Doctor in Veterinary medicine that has been working for 15 years as an Elephant Supervisor and Chief of animal behavior management at Africam Safari. Part of his assignments includes traveling to undeveloped countries to teach on the management and training of complicated animals with emphasis on elephants by using protected contact. This task has led him to be an adviser to more than 45 different zoos and animal holding institutions in 23 countries.

Gerardo also works at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand as an Elephant Training Consultant, where 5 years ago he co-founded the “Target Training Project” in which free workshops are given around Southeast Asia to the locals who own, work and are involved in the management of elephants, focusing on how to use the protected contact and positive reinforcement techniques as an alternative option to the risky and difficult husbandry procedures currently applied.

Mike McClure

Mike McClure has been active in the field of professional animal management for over 26 years. While some of that time was spent working with a wide variety of species in zoos, he eventually ended up in a traditional free contact elephant program. He soon began to seek ways to improve the training and husbandry practices through utilization of operant conditioning techniques, standardized unrestricted contact exercises and a reliance on behavioral analysis. With a new approach in place, Mike started working on reducing stress for the elephants, improving communication in their sessions with trainers, expanding their behavioral repertoire and training a new group of staff members.

Over time, the elephant program grew and expanded. The zoo brought in an adult male that was transitioned into restricted contact management and also added an adult female who later gave birth to a male calf. The calf was trained initially through unrestricted contact with the intention to ultimately manage him in restricted. His full transition to restricted contact management took place over the course of a single day with no resulting behavioral drift. In subsequent years, he has been treated successfully for both an endotheliotropic herpes virus outbreak and a suspected bacterial sepsis. Each illness left him in critical condition, requiring extensive treatments and exceptional behavioral compliance for both diagnosis and treatment of clinical signs.

Mike’s experiences have led to consultation requests from other facilities and an opportunity to travel to Africa to assist with elephant management decisions in an ecotourism camp in Botswana. As the President of the Elephant Managers Association and as an instructor and co administrator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Principles of Elephant Management I and II, Mike seeks to develop passion and professional expertise in elephant caregivers and to gain new insights from the people and elephants he is fortunate to encounter through any opportunity he can find.

Les O’Brien (Palladium Elephant Consulting Inc.)

After a successful career spanning over 20 years in elephant keeping, Les determined that the best way to affect change in the field of elephant management is to disseminate his skills through consulting and mentoring. With extensive experience in both free and protected contact, Les brings a unique perspective to the various aspects of elephant care. He is a strong proponent of protected contact and a firm believer that it is the only acceptable management approach for modern elephant care.

Having created a program based around the ideals of offering free choice, positive interactions and voluntary participation, Les teaches that any behavior is possible without force, including blood draws, footwork, free birthing, and managing bulls in musth. Les has a keen interest in all aspects of elephant management but has a particular interest in footwork. He passionately believes that it is necessary for all keepers to be well versed in elephant biology, ethology, behavior change science, footwork technique and husbandry.

The opportunity to work alongside and learn from elephants is a privilege afforded to very few people, and Les is eager to share both his past experience and current knowledge with anyone who is committed to investing in building relationships with elephants based on trust, respect, and free choice.

Ilana Cobban

Ilana has been working in the zoo field for almost 16 years. She started her career at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. It was here that she had her first encounter with an elephant, which turned out to be a major defining moment in her life. Ilana joined the elephant team at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in November of 2002. Throughout her career Ilana has helped transition elephants from a free contact to protected contact management system, has helped transition elephants into a brand new facility and has facilitated several elephant introductions. In 2012 Ilana was promoted to lead keeper of the elephant area. In this role she helps lead the elephant team in providing the very best elephant care through positive reinforcement based operant conditioning training. Ilana loves the challenges and rewards of working with elephants and is excited to see what the future will bring.

Gerry Creighton

Gerry Creighton has worked in Dublin Zoo since 1983, starting as a trainee keeper, before becoming a full time zoo keeper in 1986. He subsequently worked as Team Leader responsible for large apes, carnivores and elephants for nearly ten years before becoming Zoo Operations Manager for animals and grounds in 2009. Gerry also holds an advisory role acting as elephant consultant for many international zoos. Gerry’s career has spanned several decades of exciting development, during which time Dublin Zoo has transformed from its Victorian beginnings in 1831 into a modern, vital and progressive European centre for conservation, education and animal husbandry. Gerry has spent over 25 years working with elephants, initially under free contact management before moving progressively to protective contact in 2006.




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Questions: Contact Jeremy Dillon at 719-424-7838 or email