What happens when royal protocol meets an elephant trunk?

Elena Cresci
The Queen and Prince Philip meet Donna the elephant. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

There is a lot to remember when meeting a royal – who speaks first? Do you curtsy? Do you shake hands? But where do animals fit in to the arcane world of royal etiquette? This week, the Queen and Prince Philip met some elephants at Whipsnade zoo, one of which had been named Elizabeth in honour of her majesty.

The Queen was said to be “absolutely delighted” that the animal had been named after her – but by the looks of pictures from the event, not as delighted as Donna, an adult elephant, who was fed some bananas in the process. A video shows the Asian elephant eagerly snatching bananas from the hands of the Queen and Prince Philip with her trunk.

Meeting animals is nothing new for the queen. Here she is visiting a zoo as a child. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

We are pretty sure Donna wasn’t aware of the infamous “do not touch the royals” rule. There is speculation as to whether such protocol is actually a thing, but it is one that various celebrities and dignitaries have fallen foul of in the past. In 1992, tabloids dubbed former Australian prime minister Paul Keating “The Lizard of Oz” when he put his arm around the Queen.

A brief sort-of hug between Michelle Obama and the Queen caused a minor controversy in 2009. The Queen put her arm around the then first lady and Obama responded – a seemingly harmless gesture, but not if you listen to onlookers who told the Mail at the time: “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Queen Elizabeth met the Royal Welsh Regiment – and a goat – on St David’s Day last month. Photograph: Rupert Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

While the media makes much of these so-called breaches of protocol, Buckingham Palace itself doesn’t seem to mind. And neither does Donna the overexcited elephant. Possibly because she is an elephant.

The Queen Elizabeth is shown an orphaned cygnet in 2009. Photograph: Reuters

The Queen meets animals all the time – and, while there doesn’t appear to be any written rules on such engagements, usually there are handlers on standby in case anything goes wrong.

At Whipsnade, the elephants are used to being fed by the public. A spokesman for the zoo said the elephants were “well-drilled”. “We had rehearsals where zookeepers stood in for the Queen so it would all go smoothly,” he said. “The keepers have an incredibly close relationship and bond with them, and that allows them to do this sort of thing. The elephants are used to it – it’s nothing new to them at all. And you don’t get much better than the Queen meeting an elephant.”