Backstage Safari
at Animal Kingdom
Tour Review

by Barb and Tony, December 1998

My husband and I arrived at 8:20 a.m. for our backstage AK tour, and the rest of the group trickled in slowly up till almost 9 a.m. The confirmation form says to allow 20 minutes to get to Conservation Station, but that's too optimistic. It takes about 10 minutes to wade through the crowd from the bus stop to the front gates and into the park. Then you must walk to the train, which may take up to 7 minutes to arrive, and hope that there isn't a long line. Add in the train ride itself, plus the walk to Conservation Station, and it's more like half an hour to 45 minutes.

We had 10 or 12 people in our group, including 2 on scooters. The tour was pretty easily accessible to them, although there was some turning in tight quarters and one short dirt path. I don't recall our guide's name because she had a borrowed name tag (she said, "Mine went through the wash one too many times, but CMs feel naked without one.").

We walked backstage to the elephant quarters (there is a LOT of walking on this tour). The building is large and spacious, with pens separated by huge, thick blue pillars to allow what is called "protected contact." A keeper can fit through the bars and do things to the elephants through them. We met a trainer named Elena, who spent a lot of time explaining the handling techniques and training methods. She told us that protected contact is more natural. Instead of viewing humans as dominant herd members who are always controlling them, the elephants have their own social structure and humans are outsiders. Training is done via positive reinforcement. Correct behaviors are rewarded with a treat, and the trainer uses a clicker at the same time. Eventually, the elephant (or other animal) associates the click with doing something right. In this way, they learn to keep their trunks down, present body parts for inspection, allow procedures such as blood draws, etc. You could clearly see that Elena really cares the elephants and loves working with animals, and from some of the stories she told us about other trainers, this is common at AK.

Many of the animals came from zoos, and often their keepers came with them. For example, Tex the rhino came with his keeper, who can get him to do anything with a simple command in her Texas drawl. Elena told us that the head trainer is a "sea of calm" when working with the elephants because you cannot lose your temper or let your emotions get the better of you. I am an animal rights person, and I know AK has taken a lot of flak, but I was really impressed by the quarters and the way the animals are treated. If they have to be in captivity, this seemed like a wonderful environment. The elephants, like the other animals, are trained to come in at night when they hear a certain sound (each species has its own sound). We also learned a lot about how the elephants were introduced to each other to allow them to form a natural social structure.

Although the CMS are supposed to remain neutral and not assign human characteristics to the animals, they admit this is impossible because they all have their own personalities. Next, we went into an office building to see slides of some of the animals and learn how their environments are "enriched." Basically, this means keeping them busy so they don't pace or exhibit other neurotic behaviors like those you often see in zoos. For example, this means giving the primates treats in puzzle balls or boxes. To encourage the lions to stay on the rocks, which get quite hot in the summer, they are given a rabbit frozen in a block of ice (sort of a bunnysicle). We were given a puzzle ball with candy inside for a little treat before moving on. We also learned how deep ravines or electric wire are hidden to keep the animals contained in the safari and how only one baobob tree is real--the rest are really storage facilities for gardening tools.

Next, it was on to the food preparation building, where we saw how much care goes into selection of the meats and produce for the animals (no bruises on the their bananas!) and all the different types of chows they eat (Purina often customizes them for Disney). We heard the story of how one of the bachelor gorillas, who was the last to be introduced into the troop, was having a hard time being accepted by the others and didn't want to eat because he was feeling bad. The food prep people made him special cakes to cheer him up until he was accepted.

Next was the veterinary hospital, where a bird was being examined with a large crowd watching through the window. Most procedures are done onstage so people can view them. However, there is a sterile operating room towards the back that can be used if necessary. All of the animals are monitored closely via observation, blood, and waste inspection because they will hide health problems (if they show they are sick in the wild, they will be killed by a predator, so this is an instinctual behavior). We saw a handle in the wall that was originally meant for retraining large animals such as gorillas via chains, and we learned that such methods are obsolete because of better handling methods and newer anesthetics.

Finally, we went outside for a tracking demonstration. The guide had hidden a stuffed monkey with a transmitter collar, and she had one of our group use the proper equipment to locate it. She explained how tracking is used to learn more about animals in the wild. Throughout the tour, we learned how little is actually known about so many species. Even though most people think we know just about everything, we don't really know things as basic as their nutritional needs or social structures.

Last, we were taken to a patch of ground that was still in its original condition to see what AK looked like before the Imagineers got hold of it. It was flat, ugly scrubland--nothing like the gorgeous, detailed park it is now. It was now lunchtime, so we were given AK pins and sent on our way with a new appreciation for animals and just how little we know about them. It made me feel good to know they are handled humanely and have such good care. This is really the Cliff notes version--I would have to write a book to include everything. It was an excellent tour, and it will make you want to go on the safari immediately afterwards to see if you can spot all the details you just learned.

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