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