Scent enrichment can greatly affect the way our elephants interact with their environment. Some scents, like another elephant’s urine, might encourage an elephant to explore and area more. Others might have the opposite effect. When we presented our elephants with some charred wood, they did not seem to like it. It makes sense they would have a negative reaction to something that, in the wild, would signify danger in their environment.
As herbivores, Asian elephants eat plant-based foods that are high in fiber. The bulk of their diet is comprised of hay, but they also receive bamboo and browse (leafy branches). To encourage our elephants to forage and explore, we have positioned feeders at different locations around their habitat, and they sporadically drop hay throughout the day.
Interacting with keepers is another form of enrichment. We use operant conditioning to train our elephants, which means the elephants have the choice to voluntarily participate in training or choose to spend their time doing other things. If they choose to participate, they receive positive reinforcement in the form of a favorite food or verbal praise — which also helps build their confidence and trust in us. When we train a new behavior, they receive “jackpot” rewards, like watermelon and cantaloupe.