Thermal imaging an elephant 🐘

I left the house on Wednesday morning with a parting comment about my first client being a little original.  And it wasn't seeing donkeys that day...

Elephant Haven is a project I've been following since their very early days of buying the land and getting permission for the construction.  Back then it seemed like a pipe dream, but a fairly well constructed one, with a great concept of providing a retirement home for elephants.  With upcoming legislation that would no longer be allowed to work in the circus, where were these elephants going to go?  This project provided a solution.  With a lot of hard work Sofie and Tony have made the dream happen.  

The first resident has now arrived and the project is very real.  A heated elephant barn, outdoor enclosures and a very real elephant.  Gandhi is 53, old for an elephant in captivity, you can read about Gandhi on their website.  They are working on getting their second elephant.

At the end of last year a newsletter came round with a fundraiser to get a laser therapy machine for Gandhi, that's where I first heard that she had some health issues including arthritis.  Now my thermographer's ears pricked up because it is one of the issues we can monitor with a thermal camera.  Inflammation creates heat which radiates out and is visible on the surface of the skin.  Thermography is also fairly well suited to the zoological environment, providing a non-invasive non-contact method for monitoring physical health and even psychological state.

There is something about elephants in captivity which is inherently wrong in my opinion.  When I think of elephants I think of them living in herds, visible via safaris perhaps...  In captivity, in small enclosures, sometimes on their own, it doesn't seem like the ideal....  Not that they are safe in the wild, the destruction of their population through poaching is widely reported. Then there are the working elephants, perhaps modern day working elephants work carrying tourists though I believe this happens less now, but they are used for pulling heavy loads too.  Images of overburdened donkeys come to mind when thinking about this, so they have things in common with donkeys too... All this just adds to my desire to help elephants.  On top of that, they have lots of parallels with horses, they are a herd animal that browses, grazes and moves a lot.  Their feet require trimming if they are not getting the movement that they would get naturally.  There have been some recent podcasts about this on the horse trimming groups. Apparently a lot of elephants in captivity die from foot problems and sometimes colic.

Long story short, I offered my services to take thermal images of Gandhi. 
So, how do you thermal image an elephant?  Let's start with thermal imaging a horse... 

We need a controlled environment, or the best approximation of... this means that we are inside protected from the sun, the rain and the wind.  Sunlight, moisture and drafts can all prevent the thermal images from showing the heat radiating OUT from the animal's body by displaying patterns linked to external influences.  The ideal temperature is around 21 degrees C.  So when I say we have to be inside, it's not because I don't want to get my boots dirty, and if you see marketing images of people thermal imaging horses outside, walk away...  In addition to this controlled environment, we need the animal to have acclimatised, so if they have been outside in the cool wind or the sunshine, they need 1-2 hours inside so that we don't see the heat patterns caused by the wind or sun.  In addition, due to thermoregulation, a horse may look quite different on a thermal image on a very cold day versus a very hot day.  For this reason, I tend to adjust my scheduling of sessions depending on the season, with afternoon sessions in the spring and autumn and morning sessions in the summer.

Then I ask the person presenting the horse to have them stand in certain positions so that I can take images of every part of their body, lateral and medial leg shots, head, neck, shoulder, belly and HQ.  I will take images from in front, from behind, from underneath and from on top. Then because I love hooves, I take at least three angles of each hoof.  Except for holding a foot up, you are not supposed to touch the horse during this repositioning.

If time and budget allows I will take images before and after exercise, this is because as a physiological imaging technique, thermal imaging can show dynamic changes in blood circulation and metabolism, it follows that images taken before and after exercise will look different, with both sets of images providing important information.  What does the horse's body do when resting and how does that change when moving?  Particularly interesting when compensation patterns are operating in the body.

Hmm... back to elephants, a controlled environment? Yes, we had that, with a closed heated barn at 18 degrees, not far off our ideal temperature.  Before and after exercise? Well, let's start with before and see how we get on.... What about the images that I would be able to take?  Images from on top? Perhaps we'll skip those I say to myself... and how about positioning, we're not going to be putting on a head collar or even be in the pen with her, we are behind a big elephant sized fence and a yellow line 2m behind that, which puts you "out of trunk reach"...  On top of that Gandhi has quite a lot of emotional trauma and is wary of new people and particularly crouching down... We'll see what we can do and how she feels today, we said, keeping an open mind.

Interaction with the elephants happens in a special reinforced fence area specially dedicated to daily health care.  Tony encouraged her into this area, and then I got to see the power of positive reinforcement training in its original use with zoo animals.  Gandhi has been trained to present her feet through a window in the fence for foot care, in exchange for treats, of course.  This enabled me to take foot images, including the bottom of her feet.  If you have ever seen a horse being leaned on to pick up it's feet, or if you currently do this, do consider that there is an alternative, unbalancing them so the leg comes up isn't the way to go about it, and if a 3 tonne elephant can lift it's legs without us touching them of course horses and donkeys can too.

Seeing that she gave the front feet forward and then turned around to give the back feet backwards, it was confirmed to me that positioning wasn't going to be that big of a problem.  Though I didn't get to be as picky as I would be for a horse - where I would ask for the two furthest away feet to be close together, enabling me to see all the feet at once from the side and then for the horse to stand square with it's feet lined up together. (If you've done a session with me and remember this, next time you have difficulty, remember my elephant story...)

It was a great session, I managed to image more of her than I thought might be possible - I was thinking if we got the feet done that would be great, and she didn't seem to mind me, even when I crouched a bit to get those toes at the right angle.  If you've done some TTouch training with me you can imagine my audible exhales and use of calming signals to help put her at ease... Very impressed with how calm she was and how well she gave her feet.  The imaging report has gone off to the vet team and hopefully will help them in their efforts to help Gandhi with her health issues.

I went on a volunteer basis, but Gandhi paid me in citrus fruit, in which she is oversupplied !  Quite a lot of work goes into producing the report, about an hour to take the images, an hour to analyse a few initial images and explain them on site, then a minimum of 8 hours to do the image tuning, analysis and put it all in a report.  I think it worked out that I received two oranges and lemon for each hour of work. 
Best gig of the year....  

Such a privilege to be able to work with Gandhi and her team, looking forward to going back and doing it again and improving my thermal imaging of elephants skills....  I will be studying up on elephant anatomy...

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