Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pachyderm Personas!

            Recently the Instagram blog featured a piece about me (Elise, one of the TEI research assistants). A couple of weeks ago, a community manager from Instagram sent me a message saying he had seen my Instagram account and liked my photographs. After learning more about me he thought my story would be interesting to tell. It was a fantastic opportunity for me so I accepted and soon after received a series of interview questions in an email. The questions were great! I talked a lot about the elephants, living in Thailand as well as my art. I sent it back and waited to see what sort of story he wrote up about me. The result was a great piece that you can view here:
            I thought it was interesting that he chose to feature a quote by me as the start to the blog where I talk about elephant personality. I discuss that one of my favorite parts about the research we do is getting to see a range of temperaments between different individuals that come to the site. People respond well to this idea of elephants being similar to humans in that they have a range of different ‘personas.’ I thought I would expand on that idea here and showcase some different examples of the characters we study in Thailand.

            When I talk about personality I mean it in the anthropomorphic sense, as in I am attributing human-like behaviors and definitions onto a non-human animal. This is not a valid scientific analysis, but it does allow the reader to understand these elephants in a relatable way. For example, let me talk about an elephant we work with named Lynchee.

            Lynchee is eight years old, and when you consider that elephants live to be 65-75 years old, she is very young. When Lynchee comes to research and there is a new task she tends to be very engaged. She is quick to learn and when she is paying attention she goes through trials faster than most other elephants. She is quick, intelligent and gentle. When she is in this mood she is great to have at research! However, some days Lynchee shows up and she has an off day, just like anyone could. She will arrive and act very distracted, moving away from the apparatus to pull down some close reaching bamboo or backing up to meticulously pick up every last sunflower seed that is laying on the ground. On days like these, I feel like I am working with a young child who got bored and does not want to cooperate anymore. When this happens we end our sessions early and let Lynchee go back to playing in the grass.
            Another cute personality trait I have seen in Lynchee is quite apparent when her normal mahout, P’Pong is not there. Mahouts have a 24/7 job. The elephants do not take the weekend off from eating which means the mahouts work all the time with their elephants. It is fair for them to take time off and let one of their friends or family takes over their elephant care duties for a short time. This happened recently where Pong took some time and our friend L’Lord stepped in. Lord is an experienced mahout, but he is not the mahout that little Lynchee had gotten used to. There is no animosity between them but it was apparent at research that she did not feel as comfortable. The days when Lord brought Lynchee to research she was extremely distracted, slow to respond to our prompts and overall looked to be uncomfortable. If we think about this situation from the human perspective it makes a lot of sense. You can imagine a child that is normally excited and ready to learn becomes shy and closeted when they are dropped for school on their first day. All of a sudden the safety and comfort of the constants in their life (namely the presence of parents or guardians) is gone. Most of us would probably react this way at this age. I think maybe this is what goes on with Lynchee. (Good news, Pong is back and Lynchee is doing great!).

            Meet another one of our research personality queens, Lamyai. Lamyai is another young elephant, being about fourteen years old (so more of a teenager than Lynchee). Remember when I said that Lynchee was fast and gentle? Lamyai is more like faster and borderline violent. I do not mean that she hurts herself or us, but she may be the cause of a number of bucket deaths (we use a lot of plastic buckets in our apparatus design). She is a bit bigger than Lynchee so that may play a part in her destructive nature but I think more of it is her more rambunctious personality. In general she seems to be stronger in her movements, and more likely to lose patience. In one of our studies the elephant has to smell two buckets and try to locate the food in one. For most of the elephants we need to secure the buckets only by placing them into small metal cages. Not for Lamyai. When Lamyai shows up it requires zip ties, screws and a research assistant ready to catch any buckets she decides to hurl into the air. All in the name of science.
            I will finish up this entry by talking about an elephant that I may admit to having a crush on. His name is Somjai, and am I right or is he a handsome elephant?

            Somjai is in his twenties and has become a research superstar. He is a very big male. The other elephants I described were young, relatively small females, so when Somjai saunters over to the research site it is a striking difference. Before I learned about these elephants I would have guessed that the younger, lady elephants would be gentle with our equipment and that we would need to be careful around the big males. It turned out to be the opposite. Somjai is exceedingly gentle with the equipment. He is much slower and more relaxed than the other two. He seems in control of his movements. He certainly can get distracted and is not a perfect test subject, but he is one I can always count on to leave the research site in one piece when he finishes a session.

            I think the research team gets a unique view into the elephant personalities here. We work with them for short sessions every day where they are exposed to novel puzzles and different tasks. We are there to observe how the elephant behaves which enables us to see, right there in front of us, how the elephants think. It is an incredible experience.


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