For $125 (£78) people can do Perth Zoo’s Exercise for Elephants programme – a 45-minute workout with a personal trainer that includes 15 minutes of interacting with the elephants.
The zoo has released footage of the daily activities of the elephants to try to refute allegations that the exercise programme is abusive.
Zookeepers said the elephants were not asked to do “tricks” for visitors or “to do anything that they weren’t capable of doing and that they don’t enjoy”.
One zookeeper, Jody, said the claims were “extremely upsetting to those of us who dedicate our lives to love and care for these animals” and “completely untrue”.
“We are a conservation organisation and we absolutely do not abuse our animals here,” she said.
Another zookeeper, Clair, added: “We would never design an activity for the elephants to do purely for human entertainment that would harm the elephants in any way. Everything that we design for the elephants to do is for their benefit.”
There has been a mixed reaction to the Exercise for Elephants programme.
Some people have called it “cruel and ridiculous” while others have applauded it for keeping the animals “physically and mentally healthy and happy”.
Frankie Hope wrote on the zoo’s Facebook page: “Word has got out that you make your elephants, the beautiful, emotional, intelligent creatures, stand on their heads and the like, making them do unethical and unnatural acts.
“This humiliates them BUT more importantly the ONLY way a wild animal would agree to do these acts is if they are afraid of punishment. It’s completely unnatural. AND, you are Australian, stop embarrassing our great country, this is disgustingly un-Australian.”
Pedro Vella described the activity as “unnatural” and “exploitation”.
He wrote: “You can clearly see the elephant is not happy, nor are we, the people who are fighting for the ethical treatment of animals, stop this cruel and ridiculous “yoga class” now!”
But other visitors wrote of the “amazing bond, respect and love” the keepers have for the elephants.
Laurence Tang wrote: “These keepers treat these elephants like they would their own children or family. It upsets me that their relationship could be construed in any other way.”
Sheila Cousins, who has been a volunteer at the zoo for 20 years, added: “To see the mutual love & trust between elephants & keepers is humbling.
“Believe me No one can make an elephant or any other animal in the zoo collection do what it does not want.”
The zoo also posted a statement on its website defending the programme.
“We take our commitment and responsibility for these individual elephants seriously,” said acting chief executive officer Maria Finnigan.
“Being long-lived animals with individual care requirements we have an all of life care approach which is regularly assessed to meet their diverse and changing needs.”