Music for Elephants

If you spent time at the Park or with AERU over the winters of 2015 or 2017, you’ll probably remember our student projects investigating the potential for classical music as a form of environmental enrichment for captive elephants. Those projects, plus a kind donation, have now resulted in a regular program of musical entertainment for our ellies! It started back when the elephants were kept in individual pens at night inside the boma. What if, besides physical ‘toys’ to stimulate the elephants mentally and stave off boredom, we offered sound as a different type of enrichment? Scientists had already found positive effects in some other species as well as humans. Enter 2015 student Brooke Reilly, whose placement with AERU involved playing a variety of carefully chosen music and sound effects to the ellies on different nights. Brooke found that white noise and natural savannah animal sounds did not reduce the occasional stereotypic behaviours the penned elephants were displaying… but the classical music did! What’s more, out of the two music playlists – one at a slow tempo, one fast – the slow playlist was associated with a greater proportion of sleep-standing behaviour from the ellies. Fast-forward to 2017, when Hannah Hurt arrived to continue the music project from a different angle. By now the ellies had enjoyed the open boma for some time – would the music still have a beneficial effect? Hannah created four playlists of instrumental classical music and had humans assess the mood of each one. And the ellies definitely had their preferences! Sad music had a similar effect to Brooke’s slow music: more restful behaviour like sleeping. But calm and playful music was also popular, with an increase in behaviours like peacefully foraging and just standing to listen to the music. Both student studies required connecting spools of cable to the speakers every evening, and error-prone CDs which had to be manually changed. Therefore, it was never practical to make music a regular feature of the enrichment calendar. But this year, thanks to the generosity of the Aldridge family, we now have a tiny (but extremely powerful) battery-powered speaker… plug in a flash drive with the music on, and we’re ready to go! Now, if you stay in the Lodge on a Thursday, you’ll be treated to the unique pleasure of watching elephants enjoy their weekly musical entertainment as they browse and snooze… tracks collated by our research students and chosen by the ellies. Thursday night is karaoke night!