Seeking the image at an elephant sanctuary

Outdoors or indoors, it was a tricky situation for good photography!  Check out the following few images.

Morning exams completed, the elephants have been released into one of the large areas they have available for browsing and foraging.  The NEC is not open to the public, but a group from the zoo nearby brought some items for the facility.

Morning exams completed, the elephants have been released into one of the large areas they have available for browsing and foraging. The NEC is not open to the public, but a group from the zoo nearby brought some items for the facility.

Two of the keepers demonstrate positive reinforcement while performing routine assessments at the NEC.

Two of the keepers demonstrate positive reinforcement while performing routine assessments at the NEC.

Thanksgiving is over, and Christmas is rapidly approaching.  While many people spent their Black Friday camped out, shoved, jostled, or packed in a store like sardines in a can, I was on a trip with a zoo group to donate items to the National Elephant Center in Fellesmere, Florida.  It definitely beat dealing with hordes of shoppers! The NEC is NOT a public facility; they are a new private institution working on building their resources to be able to meet and exceed their goals of proper care for captive elephants who need a place to go.  There is another elephant facility in Tennessee, but obviously, Florida winters are definitely more mild!

This post is not meant to start an animal-rights war.I know elephants in captivity will rub some people the wrong way, but I can’t do anything about that.  If more wild places were allowed to stay wild, rather than falling victim to human greed, it would be unnecessary to have animals as species ambassadors in captivity.  Ultimately, people who love animals are fighting for the same thing: the day when there is no threat to wild populations.  Will it happen?  Well, no one said mountains are unmoveable! In some instances, photos can only tell part of the story.  These are included in that grouping.  In a nutshell, the elephants have dozens of acres to roam, and hundreds more that are still in the process of being readied for them.  The website for the NEC can be found here: www.nationalelephantcenter.org, for anyone interested in learning more about the facility.

A five-year-old male elephant at the NEC.  He was eating the treats given to him as positive reinforcement.  The bars are for the safety of the keepers, not the punishment of elephants.

A five-year-old male elephant at the NEC. He was eating the treats given to him as positive reinforcement. The bars are for the safety of the keepers, not the punishment of elephants.

The bars you see in these images are part of the barn area, where the elephants come every morning after a night of foraging.  They are free to either come or not, but extra food awaits them there, so which would YOU choose?  The bars are in place because the keepers use operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) to look the elephants over and assess their health; these are big, immensely strong animals, and anything within their reach has to be able to withstand the rigors of elephant prodding, and playtime.  Keeping the keepers one the other side of the bars is called “protected contact;” keepers actually in with the elephants would be “free contact,” which is infinitely more risky to the keepers.  Elephants are strong, intelligent, and can be sneaky, so protected contact is what most elephant facilities practice (I’m not including circuses in that statement).

On the morning our zoo group visited, the elephants were brought in to the barn area one at a time, and the keepers took their time asking the elephant to present certain parts of its body and rewarding it when it did what they asked as part of their daily routine.  Well, what would YOU do for your favorite foods?  We wait in long lines at the frozen yogurt shop–all the elephant has to do is turn around, or stick an ear between the bars (no, they don’t get frozen yogurt).  While in the stall, each elephant got a bath: a water hose and long-handled scrub brush–the equivalent of an elephant loofah.  After all the elephants had been through their morning routine, they were released into one of their roaming enclosures to browse the day away (see top picture).  The only exception to the continuity of the routine was one particular elephant who was handed (trunked?) a paintbrush with blue paint, and while one keeper held a Christmas ornament, the elephant painted on it!  Many zoos do the same activity with assorted animals; they have to choose the paints carefully, to ensure they are completely non-toxic.  You can actually purchase “animal paintings” from many of the zoos that do it, with the proceeds either benefiting the zoo or a conservation effort.  They are often more interesting than many of the framed artworks I see for sale in stores.

Elephants have an artistic side, too! An elephant at the NEC holds a paintbrush in her trunk to paint the ornament held by one of her keepers.  The large bars are in the barn area only, allowing the keepers to interact safely with these large, intelligent animals during the elephants' daily check-ups.

Elephants have an artistic side, too! An elephant at the NEC holds a paintbrush in her trunk to paint the ornament held by one of her keepers. The large bars are in the barn area only, allowing the keepers to interact safely with these large, intelligent animals during the elephants’ daily check-ups.

The slogan of this blog is, “Seeking the image.”  With the limited shooting area and many other impediments to making “wild-looking” images, I decided to work with what I had in order to find it.  Two of my favorites are shown here: the monochrome of the youngest elephant and the one just above with the keeper and the painting female.  The top image was actually included merely for illustrating the fact that these animals have lots of room to roam, and to act like elephants.  The key images, in my opinion, were finding those that best illustrated the interaction that we witnessed.  Even the monochrome above shows motion blur in the elephant’s trunk, where he had  just been tossing a treat into his mouth.  That won’t be obvious to the general viewer, but that’s why I’m incorporating here, along with the narrative.  I also loved the texture that came with the elephant’s wrinkled skin and the galvanized look to the metal.  I have done lots of work with captive animals in shooting situations identical to this.  I really enjoy it, because it forces me to look harder to capture a meaningful moment.  Even if I have a preconceived image in my mind, animals do their own thing, and it doesn’t always turn out the way I envisioned.  When the elephants were turned out into the ranging area, we were never closer than about 50 feet, and that was before they walked to the other side!  Weather conditions were overcast and breezy, so post-processing was essential. The only programs I used were Adobe Lightroom 2 and Photoshop CS2, simply for adjustments in color and contrast.

No matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to captive wildlife, especially elephants in this case, this sanctuary is a necessary haven.  They are a licensed non-profit facility, and if you check their website, you will see a wish list of necessary items of varying degrees:  http://www.nationalelephantcenter.org/material-donations/.  Many people and corporations donate to charities, especially around the holidays.  If you are looking for a worthwhile cause, I suggest you check out the NEC in Fellesmere, Florida.  (I will reiterate again–they are not a public zoo, but a private institution, and do not conduct public tours.)

Another of my blog posts about zoos can be read here:  https://audreysnaturequestphotography.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/from-the-perspective-of-captive-wildlife-a-zoo-animals-plea/

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