Kolmården has had elephants for over three decades but it wasn’t until November 2016 when Kolmården Wildlife Park decided to move from free contact to protective contact. Previous to this decision, the zoo had made some changes elsewhere. In 2014 some new trainers were hired at the dolphinarium with the aim to completely change the training programme. These changes have been very successful and from then on these style of programmes have been growing in popularity around the zoo.

In 2015 by implementing the training style used at the dolphinarium across Kolmården, we saw that animals became more opportunistic and we decided to use this to our advantage by training some of our carnivores an emergency recall.

The training programme is based on operant conditioning strategies, with the emphasis on positive reinforcement. Through looking at the previous routines, we decided to make the new routines as unpredictable for the animals as we could. By changing the predictability of the previous routines varying the behaviours asked for, instead of the same behaviours each morning or charing the time of the day of the sessions. This unpredictability appeared to have a positive effect on the animals. The most exciting was the animals started to make their own decisions, the trainers noticed in particular a big difference in the behaviour they saw from the elephants. Stereotyping decreased, they began making more choices for themselves and the positive relationships between the trainers and elephants increased.

Tonsak Conditioned for Foot Care

There are 5 elephants housed at Kolmården Zoo. Bua and Saonoi two females in their 20’s, Namsai a young male born at the Zoo who is now almost 5, Saba our oldest female who is 50+ and Tonsak who is the big breeding male and is now about 20 years of age. Tonsak had previously been trained in protective contact at Kolmårdens Zoo, so when the switch to protective contact came into effect; it helped that the trainers where familiar with managing an elephant in protective contact. This past experience made the transition from free to protective contact straightforward for the trainers and Tonsak.

Kolmården Wildlife Park wanted to optimise the training so that they could minimise the amount of misunderstandings between trainer and animal. They also wanted to speed up the training process and motivate the animals so that they enjoy the training sessions even more than before. We wanted to make sure that the animals understood clearly why they were reinforced after a behaviour. We saw a difference in the level of motivation by having a variety of reinforcement for the animals.

Working in an ABC (Antecendent – Behaviour – Consequence) structure seemed to work with Tonsak, we added a whistle bridge to pinpoint what we liked in a behaviour. The whistle is a communication tool, we can tell the animals that they did a great job by blowing the whistle at the exact moment they reached the criteria asked for. At the start it was a bit challenging, but Tonsak quickly understood what we wanted. Knowing the success of those small changes for Tonsak, the trainers took this with them to the other animals in the transition.

1 Trainer working 2 animals

Namsai the young bull, who is the first Asian elephant born in Sweden, had a little bit of protective contact experience. With the help of the training coordinator, we were able to expand his repertoire and the necessities needed to take care of him. We added a bridge, looked at reducing target use, increase in motivation and applied variable reinforcement schedules.

Target Sticks

At the start of the process we were used to use target for every behaviour. We tried to be as black and white as possible but we wanted to decrease the use of targets. We decided that we should only use targets when training a new behaviour or when the animal needs some help. The difference was clear to see over time, the animals focus became a lot better towards the trainers. The elephants now have to look and listen at the signals the trainers are giving. This process also showed an increase in motivation of the elephants in our training sessions. The removal of targets also allowed us to have more distance between the trainers and elephants during training if we want.

Since using hand and vocal signals, a bridge and a variety of reinforcement we have seen tremendous growth in the animals at our facility. Within 2 years time the trainers have grown to be a great asset in the life of the elephants housed at Kolmården Wildlife Park. This reflects in the pace the animals learn and the relationships the keepers have developed with their elephants.


The trainers are very observant when conditioning the animals to participate. At Kolmården Wildlife Park the safety of the trainers is of the outmost importance and always comes first in the philosophy of our training system. Yellow lines on the floor refers to a risk zone. When the animal throws its trunk out it can easily reach in that area. As an extra precaution, conditioning control over their trunk was quickly established. This idea came from San Diego Zoo’s elephant programme. They conditioned their elephants to grab hold (target) with their trunk wherever the trainer asked them. It was a great idea and we implemented it immediately. The animals have been conditioned for many basic behaviours to ensure the safety of the trainers and the animals. Clear communication between trainer and elephant helps us to work in a safer way.

Being on the same page has made the team grow from just caretakers to excellent trainers. My belief is that when an animal comes into a state of mind where it is likely to pose a risk to the trainers, there most likely could be a training team error. When frustration is present we immediately group together as trainers and try to solve the problem. We focus a lot on communication skills between the trainers due to the inherent risk of the job.

The importance of the basic behaviours is an important topic. We have conditioned the animals to a bridge, keep on going signal and an end of session signal. We conditioned the animals to: targets, verbal and visual signals, A-B’s, separations, call overs and criss-crossing which have all helped us in the transition. These behaviours and techniques have been vital for the success of the elephant programme at Kolmården Wildlife Park.



Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!



PeterGiljam · February 4, 2019 at 15:16

Thank you for the response Terry. Taking away as many targets as we can in the process definitely helped as well as the other things you pointed out!

Terry Golson · February 4, 2019 at 14:59

Lots of take-aways for those of us with domesticated animals, too. “Making new routines unpredictable” and “varying the behaviors asked for” are both ways of doing things that horse people (like myself) need to think about. I see too many people asking for the same repetitive (and frankly boring) behaviors of their horses. I’ll also be thinking about reducing the use of targets. Currently horse people are in love with targeting, which is great to start, but what about in the longterm? I do think that the animals don’t pay attention to their handlers as much. Interesting! Thanks!

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