Announced last month, the AZA has instated a new safety policy for keepers working with elephants. This new policy essentially eliminates the option of free contact for accredited zoos.
For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, “free contact” refers to the husbandry practice whereby keepers and animals share the same space with no barriers between them. This allows keepers to easily train behaviors without impediment, but generally requires use of the controversial bullhook—essentially a stick with a metal hook and pointed end. “Protected contact” is the opposite. All elephant areas must have barriers to protect keepers from harm. This limits direct keeper animal contact and decreases likelihood of injury.
Because of this policy change, some zoos will have to make operational and husbandry changes by 2014, and will of course also cause some need for facility changes, namely the inclusion of additional barriers and dedicated keeper walks within barns.
Perhaps the most controversial effect of the policy change will be the implied elimination of elephant interactions such as rides and possibly some shows. However, most zoos have already eliminated these types of free contact situations, and many zoos have switched to protected contact years ago.
Personally, I believe this is only a positive change as ultimately it will serve to protect both the animals and the keepers. But as we know, for some, change is a difficult pill to swallow. Hopefully those institutions not meeting the new policy requirements decide to pour themselves a nice big glass of water, and join us here in the future.