In the final post of our “Ask Us Anything” series, Kat addresses a few more questions that you submitted. We’ve enjoyed sharing information and having conversations with all of you. There will always be questions, especially as the sanctuary family grows, and we will do our best to answer as many as possible in the future.
Q: How would you handle putting one of the girls on a diet? Would Rana notice she’s getting less/different than the others?
A: Because most of their diet comes from grazing within the habitat, we would restrict the amount of hay that we offer them. The hay just acts to supplement their natural diet and it tends to put the most weight on them. If we have a particularly skinny elephant, we will give them limited treats like sugar cane and, in those cases, we just wouldn’t share those snacks with the chubbier girls. But at sanctuary, the elephants tend to be pretty active and most of their food is natural, so no one is heavy enough to cause us concern. Neither Maia nor Lady get as much food as the other girls; some body types can handle more weight than others. But, ultimately we would just make little adjustments with the food we provide, like hay, if someone needs to lose a little weight.
Q: Doing things on elephant time is really important for sanctuary and in building trust. But I’m assuming there are times when human time must be imposed. If that is so, how do you decide when human time must take precedence over elephant time?
A: There are rare times when care takes priority to the point where boundaries may need to be pushed, like when Lady first arrived. She needed to receive foot treatment quickly, but we still had to establish a base level of trust to begin that work. Things can almost always wait. Lady can now skip a foot treatment for a day if she wants; it’s not going to make or break the state of her feet. Plus, she is so tolerant of what we need to do, if she needs a day off, she’s allowed to make that decision. Unless an elephant is incredibly sick, there is no need to impose medical treatment, draw blood, or perform any other procedure on a specific day at a specific hour. If they are out exploring and enjoying themselves, or not feeling up to it, we are more than happy to wait.
During Bambi’s transport from the zoo to the sanctuary, she wasn’t ready to go when we were scheduled to depart. The truck team was flexible and so we allowed her to take the time she needed. The only instance where there is an absolute deadline with loading an elephant is when flights are involved. In Ramba’s case, there was a deadline to get her into the transport crate and on the plane. If that hadn’t happened within a specific time frame, hundreds of thousands of dollars would have been lost. But, as their caregivers, we spend our days working around the elephants’ schedules. That is one of the important elements of true autonomy at sanctuary.
Q: When an elephant passes on at sanctuary, do you bury them on site? And, if so, do the others visit their gravesites?
A: The elephants that pass here are buried on site. We try to pick a spot that is sentimental – a favorite place or somewhere they spent a good bit of time with their friends. Part of that is wanting to lay them to rest in an area they appreciated, but also you want them to be in a place where their friends will pass by and spend time, without necessarily going there for the purpose of visiting their grave.
Guida is buried in a spot where she and Maia often hung out together. All of the girls pass by regularly, as does the staff. Sometimes when we drive by, we say hello in one form or another. Ramba is buried in an area where she and Rana would visit quite a bit. All five of the girls wander there as well..
Elephants do seem to understand what a grave is. They inspect the area after the burial and we let them spend time processing their loss. We do our best to offer them as much of a natural experience as possible, allowing them to stay with their friend for a while after they pass, should they choose to do that.
Q: Do you think that Maia’s reluctance to mingle with the others has anything to do with sadness around the death of Guida?
A: At this point, no. There are certainly moments when she is sad about Guida and misses her friend. Immediately after Guida’s death, she did not want to be around the others. Rana would stay relatively close, in case Maia might want a few minutes of company, which she occasionally did.
Eventually, Maia got to a point where she was willing to be social again. Making new friends doesn’t mean you are replacing someone you lost; it just feels right to open your heart again. While Maia might not be completely comfortable with the other girls, her reluctance seems to be more about personalities or a level of discomfort with the threesome of Bambi, Mara, and Rana Maia may be intimidated by the closeness of the relationships or the protective energy that Bambi can give off, or simply the fact that Bambi can be silly and fast. But, as we are currently seeing, that dynamic is changing and both Maia and Bambi are coming to terms with what their relationship might become.
Q: Have you considered setting up an ele-cam that would allow people to watch the girls?
A: Yes. Scott actually set up the camera system at the Tennessee elephant sanctuary. Ideally, we would like to have one here, but we face a pretty substantial obstacle when it comes to internet access and signal strength. Sending live feed videos is difficult and we don’t yet have a solution. For now, the cameras on-site are used internally only, but have been installed to be able to stream outside of the sanctuary in the future.
One of the things we discovered in Tennessee is that, about 85% of the time, there are no elephants visible on camera. Here in Brazil, because the habitat is larger and there are more trees, it would be more difficult to see much of anything. A lush habitat is great for the elephants, but not so great for viewing them through a camera. It is definitely something we would like to be able to do, but it will depend on feasibility and cost.
Q: What does the future of the sanctuary look like? Have you considered bringing in elephants from Asia? And what are your plans for other sanctuaries?
A: At some point in the future, there will be no more elephants in the sanctuary. Most of our residents are geriatric, though some of the newcomers will be younger. Because South America no longer breeds elephants, we will eventually be out of a job as far as elephant care here in Brazil. That isn’t a bad thing. It will mean that there are no more elephants in captivity in South America.
We already see a future where the sanctuary can be a place for wildlife, whether that means an open space or a larger wildlife rehabilitation and release program. We will probably keep the back of the habitat relatively untouched, since it is really wild and beautiful. Regardless, the land will most likely be used for other animals in some way. There is a great deal of devastation to wild animal habitats here in Brazil, so it makes sense to allow the land to care for those animals again.
Elephant Sanctuary Brazil does not plan to bring in elephants from Asia. It can be a challenge to move an elephant from one country in South America to another, so bringing elephants from another continent would be a lot for an elephant – especially one already physically compromised by a life of captivity. CITES restrictions make it incredibly difficult to move elephants from countries and habitats where they naturally reside, even if the elephants are captive. There is also a reluctance within the South American government about importing animals from some continents because of concern about introducing diseases from foreign places to the cattle here. If anything, we will work with sanctuaries that already exist in other countries or help to establish new ones. There are other projects, other sanctuaries, and other possibilities that we are always discussing. Decisions will be made based on where the need for assistance is at the time.
Q: What is the status of Maison?
A: Honestly, we don’t know. The zoo hasn’t communicated any intentions of sending her to Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. There are people in the area that were unhappy with Bambi coming to ESB and some of that hostility has carried over, although in a recent conversation some individuals from the zoo acknowledged that Bambi was better off here at sanctuary. That doesn’t mean that we have given up on Maison. The zoo initially was entertaining the idea of sending her here, but that isn’t the case at this time. We do keep track of her as best we can through connections in the area.
Q: What types of essential oils do you use and for what purposes?
A: We use a couple of different brands, including one line (AnimalEO) that was created by a veterinarian specifically for animals. Dr. Shelton has donated oils to the sanctuary for years and they are all animal safe. Most of them are blends, but we do use some single oils here and there that work synergistically with each other to deal with a common issue. She is working on some blends specifically for equine issues, which we hope will be beneficial for some common elephant problems as well.
Caroline Ingraham also generously donates oils and her time to work with the elephants, oils, and zoopharmacognosy (self selection). We began collaborating with her when Mara was still having significant GI issues, but we also used that time to have skype sessions between her and the the other elephants as well. From those sessions, Lady has a specific oil that she likes having massaged into her ankles and two that are used directly on her feet. Rana also has a favorite that is a paste that she likes to have spread directly on her tongue.
There appears to be substantial benefits – and certainly no harm – in using essential oils for a large number of purposes. The girls receive a blend and a single oil for their arthritis and joint issues twice daily in peanut butter apples. We also topically apply a blend that offers an overall immune boost, along with other system specific ‘boosts’ when needed.
We have used essential oils on the chickens, the dogs, the people – just about everyone at the sanctuary – for everything from GI issues to joint pain and behavioral and emotional issues. There are calming blends that decrease stress, which we use on elephants, and we pack a small kit of oils on every rescue. As long as they are sourced properly, medicinal quality, and are animal safe, there is no reason not to try them. If the oils don’t work, no harm is done and we look for another solution.
Experts who work with elephant nutrition talk about how elephants self-medicate in the wild, so it makes sense to use plant-based medicine in their care. The oils absorb well into their bodies and, considering how poor their digestion is in general, we have found them to be useful tools and have had many successes with essential oils.
Q: I do know the public is not allowed to come visit the Sanctuary to see the elephants but have you ever thought of holding a raffle to allow a small number of people to possibly do that maybe once a year is all?
A: Honestly, no it is not something we are considering right now. When making decisions that involve bringing new people into a sanctuary environment, we have to be very careful because it can quickly become something larger than was intended. We’ve had researchers visit, but they don’t work directly with the elephants. We have also allowed plant and bug studies to be done but, again, those people do not go near the elephants or their space. Considering that elephants are sensitive to outside stimulation, particularly an elephant like Lady who gets very preoccupied with people and sounds that are unfamiliar, it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do for their wellbeing at this time. We do hope to set up a volunteer program once we can straighten out housing – which is an issue when you are located in the middle of nowhere. It was something we truly enjoyed doing in TN, but there would be no contact or exposure between the volunteers and the elephants. As long as the sanctuary houses elephants that are uncomfortable with strangers in their vicinity, that must remain our priority.
Photo above of Mara