A1 Journal article – refereed

Influence of handler relationships and experience on health parameters, glucocorticoid responses and behaviour of semi-captive Asian elephants

List of Authors: J. A. H. Crawley, O. Lierhmann, D. J. Franco dos Santos, J. Brown, U. K. Nyein, H. H. Aung, W. Htut, Z. Min Oo, M. W. Seltmann, J. L. Webb, M. Lahdenperä, V. Lummaa

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publication year: 2021

Journal: Conservation Physiology

Volume number: 9

Issue number: 1

eISSN: 2051-1434

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coaa116


Declining wild populations combined with accumulating captive populations of e.g. livestock, pets, draught and zoo animals
have resulted in some threatened species with substantial proportions of their populations in captivity. The interactions
animals have with humans in captivity depend on handler familiarity and relationship quality and can affect animal health,
growth and reproduction with consequences for the success of conservation programmes. However, assessments of how
specific human–animal relationships affect a range of physiological and behavioural outcomes are rare. Here, we studied
semi-captive Asian elephants with detailed records of elephant–handler (mahout) relationships and veterinary management,
allowing assessment of multiple welfare indicators in relation to specific mahout–elephant relationship lengths and mahout
experience. These included measures of physiological stress (faecal glucocorticoid metabolite [FGM], heterophil:lymphocyte
ratio [H:L]), muscle damage (creatine kinase [CK]), immunological health (total white blood cell count [TWBC]) and behaviour
(response to mahout verbal commands). We found no evidence that FGM or H:L related to aspects of the mahout–elephant
relationship. Longer overall mahout experience (i.e. years of being a mahout) was linked to increased muscle damage and
inflammation, but the lengths of specific mahout–elephant relationships were inversely associated with muscle damage in
working-age elephants. Elephants responded more to familiar mahouts in behavioural tasks and faster to mahouts they had
known for longer. In summary, our results found little evidence that the mahout–elephant relationship affects physiological
stress in this population based on FGM and H:L, but mahout experience and relationships were linked to other physiological
responses (CK, TWBC), and elephants require behavioural adjustment periods following mahout changes.
Key words: Animal welfare, glucocorticoids, human–animal interactions, human–animal relationships, mahout, physiology

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Last updated on 2021-24-06 at 09:59