SAN DIEGO — For a hundred years, the accepted way to manage elephants in zoos was through close contact and dominance, including whacking the mammoth mammals with sticks or ax handles when they were balky or cantankerous.
Conventional wisdom, derived from elephant handlers in Africa and Asia, held that to spare the rod was to endanger the keeper and that, as wild beasts, elephants need to be intimidated into submission.
Now, officials at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park hope to help dispel that notion by training eight African elephants who have never been exposed to those traditional methods.
Seven of the animals -- Litsemba, Lungile, Mabhulane, Ndlulamitsi, Swazi, Umgani and Umoya -- were brought to San Diego in August from the African nation of Swaziland, over strenuous opposition from animal rights advocates, who warned that the elephants would be beaten to make them more manageable. The eighth elephant, Vus'musi, was born at the park in February.
None of the eight has ever been trained in any other method than "protected contact," in which keepers reward good behavior with tasty treats and sweet talk and never punish or get too close to the elephants. As such, animal specialists say the behavior of the eight is the first "pure" test of protected contact.
"These animals have never been hit, beat or yelled at," said Jeff Andrews, animal care manager at the 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park, set in the San Pasqual Valley, 35 miles north of downtown.
"They don't know the meaning of the word 'no,' " Andrews said. "It's all been positive."
Under protected contact, the keeper and the elephants never share the same space. The keeper is on one side of the bars of a metal cage or barrier, the elephant on the other. The elephant is trained to cooperate voluntarily, rather than through fear or coercion.
Treats are handed through the bars when the elephant lifts its foot on command, for example. A whistle is meant to teach the animals that a treat is coming.
The main goal of training is to make the elephants manageable for health exams, officials said. At the Wild Animal Park, the elephants spend most of their days roaming in a three-acre enclosure.
Elephants are susceptible to foot problems and tuberculosis. Tests for TB include sending a stream of water into the elephant's trunk, then collecting the water for tests.
Amid death and political controversy, the treatment of elephants has changed greatly in the last decade as more zoos have moved toward "protected contact," rather than the "free contact" system, in which the keeper uses a commanding voice and menacing manner to become the dominant member of the herd.
But some critics have suggested that the free contact system is still better because the protected contact works only because the elephants have already been tamed through the rougher, hands-on system.
"We're trying to take away that excuse," Andrews said. The elephants from Swaziland were the first imported to the U.S. since the late 1980s, before the protected contact method took hold.
Although today it may be a leader in the hands-off, protected contact method, the San Diego Zoo has had scandal and tragedy with its elephants in the past.
In 1988, the zoo was fined and reprimanded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after five elephant keepers chained an elephant, brought it to its knees and beat it severely with ax handles over two days.
A criminal investigation by the city attorney declared that the treatment, while seemingly cruel, was an accepted practice at zoos and circuses. Still, the state Legislature passed a law making it a crime to discipline an elephant in a manner that left a scar on its hide.
In 1991, an animal keeper at the Wild Animal Park was killed when she was caught between two Asian elephants. (In 1990, the federal government declared that being an elephant keeper was the most dangerous job in the country.)
The very presence of elephants at zoos is a flashpoint in the war between the zoo industry and the animal rights movement. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, backed by other groups, sued unsuccessfully to prevent the San Diego Zoo from getting federal permission to import the elephants from Swaziland.
Among other allegations, the group warned that the elephants would be beaten because only physical abuse would make them manageable as captives after having spent their lives roaming free at a nature preserve in Swaziland.
So deep is the suspicion between animal rights advocates and zoos that advocates believe the elephants at the Wild Animal Park may be being beaten when the public isn't looking.
"We don't know what happens behind the scenes, and we don't know what happened in Africa," said Nicole Meyer, an elephant specialist for PETA. "We are very skeptical that they have put a priority on the welfare of their elephants."
Zoo officials dismiss PETA as run by zealots.