A new ‘Paw’diatrist in Town

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 15 2022
Echo A new ‘Paw’diatrist in Town

By Risidra Mendis    

He works day by day, minute by minute to make a positive impact on all elephants he can in Sri Lanka. During his first three months in Sri Lanka he travelled 4,743 miles, 310 hours in the car, gave out 38 basic elephant care booklets and officially saw and treated 47 elephants, trimmed the feet of 27 elephants (108 feet) and made three enrichment feeders. 

His name is Steve Koyle, the Founder and CEO of Elephant Care Unchained. Koyle is an Elephant Care and Welfare Expert specialising in footcare, positive reinforcement training, target training and facility design to support elephant health and welfare. He is well known around the world for his foot care treatment for elephants. Elephant Care Unchained is a nonprofit organisation dedicated to eliminating cruelty and improving elephant welfare in their native countries.

His work with elephants cannot be easy as we can see from the effort he puts into his work and the number of hours he travels to get from one area of the country to another. Koyle has traveled through storms and through dust and heat to get the job done. Handling an elephant that generally weighs from 4,400 to 12,000 pounds is a task that only a few can manage. Adults can reach a height of 11.5 feet, which is about twice as tall as an average human.

In Sri Lanka elephant foot care is not something that many captive elephant owners pay attention to. This could be due to ignorance or due to negligence. But either way it doesn’t matter to Koyle. All he wants to do is attend to these elephants free of charge and make their living conditions better. He is not interested in pointing fingers at elephant owners for not caring for their animals. He is not interested in highlighting bad cases of elephant negligence. 

Elephant booklet

This is why his elephant booklet does not include the names of elephant owners or their elephants. They are only pictures of elephants, their bad legs and treatments.  All he wants is to extend his assistance and share the valuable knowledge that he has gained over the years while working with elephants around the world.

“I have been working with elephants for 20 years. I worked at the Phoenix Zoo for 14 years. During the past six years I have been travelling in South East Asia. I currently work in six different countries. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for a little over three months. I’m travelling around and volunteering my services to help any elephant that I can help in numerous ways even if it is foot care which I’m globally recognised for.  Foot care leads to improving elephants’ welfare,” Koyle told Ceylon Today.

He says he is trying to promote more elephant friendly behaviour and has seen 48 or 49 elephants that belong to temples and private owners. “The temples and private owners were very welcoming to me. I saw and treated 28 elephants’ feet (112 feet). I help to do enrichment, meaning you feed them in a different way. You don’t just throw food on the ground. You encourage them to eat food that is hung up to extend their time of eating. They are called feeders; enrichment devices. A pulley tied to a tree or a pillar can be used to hang food. This is an improved way to feed elephants. This feeding method helps to strengthen their necks, shoulders and trunks. It keeps them mentally engaged and reduces negative stereotypical swaying and rocking,” Koyle explained.  

There are different ways to chain elephants says this elephant expert. He goes on to explain that you can use a single strong chain for the front and back leg and this way gives the elephants a little more movement. He also suggests that free time off the chains should be allowed for these elephants, while the mahouts observe. 

Long chain for elephant 

“If this is not possible use one long thick chain. This lowers stress levels for the elephants and increases their well-being. A high percentage of the elephants that I have treated have been on concrete. This is terrible for elephants. Their feet are affected because they are on concrete or wood planks for a long time. But I have seen much worse feet. These elephants can put up with a lot until they get older. Then their feet start to break down,” Koyle said. 

Cracked nails are a very common issue that Koyle has seen in some of these animals. “When an elephant lies down on concrete, the third nail is the first to hit the concrete, when the elephant tucks its leg to lie down and then drags it to get back up. This creates abnormal pressure on the nail and over time the nail weakens and cracks. The outside nails on the front and back feet usually have issues from lying on concrete. Concrete is terrible for elephants,” Koyle explained.

The abscess on an elephant’s leg that Koyle treated was caused from the animal constantly standing in one spot and shifting its weight from one hip to the other. “The shifting causes pressure on the outside of the back feet and over time abscesses form. Far too often many elephants are not trained for foot care and do not lie down. So over time these problems develop and when untreated, cause serious problems and eventually a slow painful death for the animals,” Koyle explained.

According to Koyle the consequences of an unnatural environment and practices such as the lack of a natural environment, been chained and kept on concrete for many years and walking on tar and concrete roads causes severe damage to the feet and results in handicapped elephants.  

Healthy elephant feet 

He is of the view that the key to healthy elephant feet is proper hygiene – a dry, clean environment, natural substrates – soft yielding surfaces, sufficient exercise – walking as much as possible, and regular examinations of their long nails, cracks, urine burns and bruises among others.“An elephant’s nails should not be longer than the sole and should have space between them. The pads/sole should be firm with some texture. Standing in a damp, moist and unsanitary environment causes the pad to separate,” Koyle said.

His treatment of elephants over the years in many countries has given Koyle the experience to identify whether bruising on pads occurs from standing, walking, rocking and swaying on concrete regularly. “Standing on hard or moist surfaces in their own urine eventually results in infections and pad separation. This is uncomfortable and painful for the elephant. If you have a healthy environment and healthy feet you will have a healthy elephant,” Koyle explained.  

He is of the opinion that in the common way elephants are kept, they are unable to move and cannot exhibit their natural behaviour. “These elephants have no mental or physical stimulation. Keeping elephants this way is not healthy and will reduce their life span. Healthy elephants should dig, dust, wallow and drink freely. Keeping elephants on clean sand is the best way and is great for their feet and joints. Sand allows elephants to demonstrate their natural behaviours such as dusting, digging and sleeping. The sand also protects their skin from the sun and insects,” Koyle said. 

Captive elephants in Sri Lanka most often do not have the facility of standing on sand except for a few exceptional cases. Unlike in the wild where elephants have the freedom to roam in the jungles and on soil and sand, captive elephants are kept chained in areas that are unsuitable for their welfare.  

Discussions and better living conditions 

“If they continue to be kept in the environments they are in, such as concrete floors they will continue to get worse. I suggest to the owners the alternatives and what can be done. So it is not just going and trimming their feet. It is about having discussions and what else we can do to help, to make better living conditions for the elephants,” Koyle explained.

A booklet Basic Guide To Improving Elephant Welfare (Sri Lanka 2021) put together by Koyle gives elephant owners the basic details and common problems faced by captive elephants and what can be done to make life more comfortable for these pachyderms. The booklet with colour photos of elephants and their feet provides information in English and Sinhala that elephant owners and mahouts can make use of, if and when they come across such a problem with their animal. The photos are clearly displayed and need no explaining. 

“I have been walking around and handing out these elephant care notebooks. I have given about 40 books away. These colour books will give these guys different ideas as to what can be done. We try to help all the elephants we can in Sri Lanka. We continue to teach and demonstrate proper foot trimming techniques to help improve elephants’ welfare. I will stay in Sri Lanka for as long I’m productive. There are other countries requesting my services as well,” Koyle said.

This Former Night Manager at Urban Dog, Former Animal Keeper at Wildlife Waystation and Elephant Care Workshop Instructor has a Bachelor of Science Major in Zoology from Michigan State University. He has attended the European Elephant Management School, Hamburg Germany, in 2004 and attended the AZA’s Principals of Elephant Management in 2011. 

His current projects include treating elephants in Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

(Pix courtesy Steve Koyle)

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 15 2022

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