Building a Sanctuary: It Takes More Than Love

Last month, Scott was asked to write a guest blog for the World Elephant Alliance about the joys and challenges of building a sanctuary. We often get questions about how to begin the process of creating a rescue organization and, while the effort should be applauded, the realities of starting an organization from the ground up are not for the faint of heart. The benefits are life-changing for all involved but, if your goal is to create a truly healing space, you should go into the experience with your eyes open. Scott’s detailed thoughts are shared below:

Working with and, more importantly, for elephants is an extraordinary life, and providing them with the freedoms of sanctuary leaves us at a loss for words to describe the depth of gratitude we feel. With all of the celebrations of new beginnings that come with a life at sanctuary, witnessing the growth and healing of these sentient beings who have been profoundly damaged in captivity, there is an unspeakable joy in seeing the light return to their eyes; there is an equal, complicated emotion surrounding the difficulties and challenges of running an elephant sanctuary. After 16 years building and developing The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, I needed to step away. Kat and I took on a quiet life for a short time, and it too was a glorious life. We looked forward to the ease of stress and constant worry, but I didn’t anticipate the perspective and clarity that came with our return to “normalcy.” When you provide care for such highly intelligent and emotional beings, particularly with the complexities of their emotional and physical recovery, they are always in your mind. Not having the constant worry was welcomed and necessary. 

Shortly after leaving the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, we received a desperate call to help remove Ramba, the last performing elephant in Chile, from the circus. Two prior attempts to move her had failed and, on the day after Christmas in 2011, the judge for her case set a limit of 10 days and offered one last chance to move Ramba, or she would stay with the circus for the rest of her life. Her relocation was chaotic but successful, and was the first step to her eventual transfer to sanctuary which, at the time, was slated to be the sanctuary in Tennessee. About one year later, with Ramba still residing in her temporary home, and with our renewed perspective on the gifts elephants bestowed on us, conversations for a new venture on our part began. 

Some of our colleagues had been working in South America, principally in Brazil, where progressive legislation regarding captive animals was being enacted. No current alternative existed, but they knew sanctuary was the only viable future for an increasing number of soon-to-be-displaced elephants. Almost immediately, we realized they were right, but we honestly hadn’t considered starting a new sanctuary until that point. There is so much to take into account when you go down that road of thought, because you know what challenges almost certainly lie ahead. And, more importantly, we knew the toll it can take on our own lives. Even when you think you know the difficulties you’ll face, so many roadblocks emerge that you don’t anticipate. Long conversations were had in our home about the effort it would require from us, knowing that the next step is not one of “let’s see what happens.” Beginning a sanctuary means you are all in – but, after witnessing some of the things we’d seen in the eyes of elephants we’d cared for in the past, there was an unstoppable pull towards creating a new home for the elephants we’d met here. 

When we first arrived in Brazil to start building Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, we were told that land was already available, as was $300,000 in funding, a car, and a place to live. The funding immediately fell through, and the property did the same shortly after. The car was going to be given by the Brazilian government, but was tied to having the organization up and running. No sanctuary meant no car. But the government was still supportive and provided us housing, which wasn’t ideal, but they were making some effort. From our first days in Brazil, zoos asked for advice and prosecutors were inquiring when we could come to relocate elephants in their jurisdiction. Although countless bureaucratic hurdles lay ahead, the situation was unique, where virtually everyone we met, from public authorities to zoos, wanted sanctuary for their elephants. There was a groundswell building around the issue, but no infrastructure in place. 

Even with these positive ideas emerging, other significant and often deflating roadblocks continued to pop up. We found tracts of land that may have worked for a sanctuary, but paperwork is different in South America than in the US. Areas that might have been a good fit weren’t documented, the documentation was falsified, or landowners would change their minds and decide not to sell. Brazilian bureaucracy was slow moving and difficult to maneuver, and the entire regulatory body had no idea how to categorize an organization like ours, because we were the first sanctuary of our kind. What little personal funding we had was drying up. At that moment, we looked at each other and pondered, “What are we doing here?” When everything logical said to turn back, with Ramba, Maia, Guida, and many others in desperate need of a new life, it was impossible to walk away. When you know what we know – the level of healing that occurs in a sanctuary setting, the level of transformation that starts from their very first steps onto sanctuary grounds, – there is no turning back once you begin.

We made the difficult decision to alter our original plan. Following an exhaustive search, we fell  in love with a property in the municipality of Chapada dos Guimarães, Mato Grosso. The weather in the area was lovely, the land itself was gorgeous, and there was so much about the space that would be stimulating for elephants; of the hundreds of farms we explored, this one of the most diverse and protected – truly idyllic for sanctuary. Brazilian custom is to pay for land up front for land, rather than in installments as you might in the US. And, bank loans for non-profit organizations require an individual to fully financially back the loan in the event of default. As we pondered how we could make this work, something just short of a miracle happened: the local landowner was willing to help, based on nothing but good faith and a dream. This man didn’t know of the success of the elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. But he had a big heart, some blind faith and, once he understood what we wanted to do, he wanted to be a part of something that would truly save lives. 

There was absolutely no way we could have taken on the task of creating this elephant sanctuary without knowing the significant work that lay ahead. Without our prior knowledge and decades of experience of sanctuary, we would never have pursued moving forward. Our eyes were open and we readied ourselves for the days we knew we’d have to push onward, through almost insurmountable obstacles, but with confidence the project would change lives. We jokingly say that we have just enough faith to continue on when logic says to turn back, but the truth is that we know the difference that genuine, spacious, and autonomous sanctuary brings to the lives of the elephants.

Elephants are beautiful, sentient beings with deep emotions, intelligence, the resilience to endure, and the capacity to heal, and even forgive. This sanctuary is built on the belief that elephants deserve a better life. Captivity, confinement, and isolation for the entertainment of humans has nearly destroyed these precious lives. Sanctuary heals. Freedom gives captive elephants the chance to learn who they really are and what it means to be an elephant. We continue to face challenges, but so has every elephant we meet, to a much greater degree. If they have the courage to forgive, heal, and keep going, then we owe it to them to do the same. It is up to all of us to right the wrongs of the past through our united efforts to make tomorrow a brighter place for all. 

Photo (L to R): Mara, Rana, and Bambi


  1. REPLY
    Alana says

    Right On! I care about the care givers as much as the elephants, your efforts on behalf of elephants I know must be hard & yet you never give up. I get frustrated waiting for transfer days. You are truly special people that I am so happy to help when I can.

  2. REPLY
    Deb says

    I just love you & Kat & your team. You are very inspirational!
    Thank you for all your hard work !
    I imagine when you’re done for the day & you’re exhausted, and you look out over the sanctuary you must feel
    immense pride and accomplishment …and PEACE.

  3. REPLY
    Suzanne Eaton says

    Beautifully written, Scott.

  4. REPLY
    Kenneth B. Newman says

    Dear Scott and Kat,

    Very nice information relating to your beginning work in South America.

    Does the former landowner come by the GSE to see the elephants at all? How much contact do you still have with him? Does he speak English?, or did you need a translator when you bought the property? Are the local elected officials and the Brazilian national government still very friendly to GSE? do you have to contact any local elected official for help with your work? and finally, is there any light at the end of the tunnel for your transport of the other elephants on your list to GSE? but delayed due to covid?

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      The former landowner, Senhor Nelson, sadly passed away last year. You can read about it in our blog post here:

      He did not speak English, but we had a translator that helped us communicate. We do have friendly but professional contact with Brazilian government agencies; some of them play a role in issuing permits to us. And, as we have said, there has no change of plans in the transport of the elephants slated to come to GSE. At this time, we cannot move forward with Pocha and Guillermina because we are waiting on the necessary permits to move them. We have not been given a timeline for the approvals. Until we receive those, the Mendoza staff continues to work with the elephants to make sure they will be ready to go as soon as everything is in place.

  5. REPLY
    Nancy Hughes says

    Words cannot express adequately my admiration for your courage and commitment and compassionate dedication to providing sanctuary for these magnificent animals. I pray for blessings for you Scot and Kat and all participants in Sanctuary, Brazil both human and animal as you continue your journey.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Thanks for your kindness.

  6. REPLY
    Charlotte Hansen says

    This is so beautiful!

  7. REPLY
    Carol says


  8. REPLY
    jj skiddy says

    there is no words to express the heartful thanks not only from me or hundreds of others who only wish they could help but the joy an love from the abused overworked and terrified elephants you save… all have earned a spot up in the heavens for your kindness an work… mankind is so often an evil disgrace but then we come across people like yourselves who shine a glimmer of hope for us all……Thank you from myself an mostly from these elephants….

  9. REPLY
    Lane says

    The depth of experience, education, and passion that you have articulated in this piece, Scott, is so moving. It is through the dedication of individuals like you and Kat and all of the people world-wide that engage in the challenging work of helping elephants that those of us on the periphery even have a clue to the magnificence of these beings so much older and wiser than we are. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  10. REPLY
    Alice says

    This was so beautifully written. It is impossible to thank you and Kat enough for not giving up and to make the sacrifices you have for these wonderful elephants who desperately need your love and care. I am so grateful that you developed the sanctuary and that you serve as a beacon worldwide for the only proper way to provide for elephants who are unfortunately in captivity. People like you are a rarity.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      There are a number of ways to create a sanctuary, but this method is what the elephants in our past have taught us works best. Thank you for your kind words.

  11. REPLY
    JamesMichael says

    …And so 2 Angels, who live on Earth, in company with more Angels…
    By whoever-or whatever- is holy, you are all so very special.


  12. REPLY
    Angie Gibson says

    To enter into this beautiful and tragic world of elephants and do what you do each and every day, 24/7, with such grace and compassion , only to give the best life possible to even one gentle giant who had everything stolen from them —is absolutely remarkable. Precious Kat & Scott— you are promise keepers ,true to your word, relentlessly advocating for elephants’ (and all animals’) rights and welfare ; one-on-one, alleviating their suffering so much so, that they can just breathe and be….an elephant. Not one single person on your team is to be left out—I pray for all of you daily to be lifted up and strengthened body,mind,spirit,soul and heart to continue to do what is so very obviously not easy to do in any way—completely rewarding and fulfilling ,but never easy🙏❤️🙏 To you and the handful of people around the world giving it all you got to help the captives, I applaud you and am so very happy to be part of your support system! I watch the Ellies every night before bed (NOT the news) and knowing they are content and enriched and in a safe,pure, gorgeous environment—HOME—allows me to sleep a bit easier in this crazy world. Can’t wait for P & G’s feets to touch the ground there🐘🙏🐘❤️❤️❤️❤️ God bless you all, big & small!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Thank you for such lovely words. We are grateful.

  13. REPLY
    Bonnie says

    This is for Scott interesting to find out that you were part of the Sanctuary in Tennessee I don’t remember exactly how many years ago but there was a petition to sign to remove an Elephant that was in need of help I think it was a circus but not exactly sure but I do remember that the Elephant made it to the Sanctuary in Tennessee you guys in Brazil and Tennessee are a God Sent. Thanks for all you all do

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Yes – Scott was a co-founder of TES. Those experiences and the elephants there were great teachers for how we work every day.

  14. REPLY
    John says

    😃 Thank you all for providing so much joy in a world that’s sometimes can seem devoid of it.

  15. REPLY
    Rachel says

    All the lovely, supportive and caring words expressed above, I ditto. I’m beyond grateful with all your efforts – easy and difficult – and a committed supporter ’till the end of my life. 💝

  16. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    I keep re-reading this post and haven’t previously commented because others have responded so eloquently I really couldn’t think of anything to add.
    But I must.
    Simply – Thank You both. I’m afraid you’re going to work yourselves to pieces but my goodness, I can’t imagine a more deserving clientele than the fortunate elephants who have been, are now, or will come, to GSE. ❤️

Post a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.