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Questions Raised About Pittsburgh Zoo's Treatment of Elephants



Following complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection has called into question the Pittsburgh Zoo's practice of using dogs to control elephants.

The USDA report indicated dogs showing aggressive behavior that caused the elephants distress. We talk with Margaret Whittaker, Director of Elephant Care for The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants.

Whittaker refers to the Pittsburgh Zoo’s situation as unique since dogs are commonly used to control domestic animals while elephants are classified as wild animals. However, there is history of elephants being afraid of dogs and also some who do not seem to mind dogs.

Purposefully using dogs as a control mechanism for elephants is related to the dog’s representation of aversive training techniques for elephants, says Whittaker. Positive re-enforcement training is known to be very effective in controlling animal behavior.

Whittaker discusses the two approaches of managing elephant behavior:

“ In one case, the elephant is doing something to earn something it likes, in another situation of negative re-enforcement the elephant is doing a behavior too but to escape or avoid something undesirable.”

At the sanctuary, any elephant in need is taken in and provided with a new home. The elephants have the opportunity to explore several habitats. There is focus on female elephants since there are more in captivity and used in entertainment where they are required to do un-natural activity. The only use of control at the sanctuary for the elephants says Whittaker, is positive re-enforcement.