Decades Later, Trauma Lingers

Elephants have demonstrated for hundreds of years how intelligent and emotionally empathic they are. In the wild, they have strong ties to one another and deep relationships that can last a lifetime. Those who are captured from their natural homes for a life in captivity lose those relationships that are crucial to their wellbeing and, sometimes, their survival. If a mother/infant connection is broken, that loss can affect elephants for the rest of their lives, preventing “normal” emotional development; lack of connection with older generations in a traditional herd damages the elephant’s ability to learn about themselves and makes them vulnerable to human exploitation. 

As the world understands more about trauma, both in humans and other animals, studies have shown that elephants can suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be as a result of the devastation of being torn away from their families, experiences with humans at a very early age, and/or abuse and fear-based training by their keepers. Some may become predisposed to violence and others may self harm or attempt to repress emotions. Elephants in captivity often become physically unhealthy as well, which can lead to even deeper trauma. 

Lady unfortunately lived a life that impacted her severely, both physically and emotionally. After spending over 40 years in a circus and 6 more in a zoo, her body was in terrible condition. When she arrived, her spirit seemed broken. She distrusted both humans and other elephants. Though she may appear to an outsider as a loner, we have witnessed her grow and heal in so many ways, even though she will always suffer from the physical effects of captivity. 

During a recent foot treatment (which Lady has learned to enjoy and appreciate), Kat placed a container of what we use to flush her feet after treatments close enough that Lady knocked it over with her trunk while reaching to smell it. Lady appeared to be mortified, as though she were waiting to be punished somehow. She displayed a response of concern that she was going to get “in trouble.” Of course Kat assured her that everything was fine, gently pet her trunk, and Lady relaxed right away. Though Lady has been at sanctuary for about two years and nothing bad has happened to her, deep down she still has a strong fear response. She may not always show this side of herself, but that instinct is still there and she may spend the rest of her life going through the process of healing. 

Wellness is a complicated process for both humans and animals. When we witness an elephant’s growth and recognition of what sanctuary can be, we know they are in the process of healing. There is no instant fix for trauma, but the elephants here are on their own journeys toward a better understanding of themselves. 


  1. REPLY
    Ellen Bollinger says

    Ohh Lady…oh my gosh…i understand that feeling. Thank you Kat for being there to reassure her immediately, and being there to reassure her that no more trauma will ever be part of their lives.

  2. REPLY
    Andrea says

    What she’s endured is heartbreaking…and yet she is one of the lucky ones. Thank you for taking tender care of her body AND her soul.

  3. REPLY
    Melinda Barnett says

    This is so incredibly sad. I thank your organization every day for giving the wonderful beings a second chance. God bless Lady and all the other ellies.

  4. REPLY
    Bonnie says

    as I have always heard Elephants don’t forget but were they are now is a good and safe place and we know it takes time to trust but they will

  5. REPLY
    Laura Barber says

    It’s obvious Lady underwent severe trauma in her lifetime. As much as I and others want her to fit in, socialize and be more interactive, stories like this illustrate Lady’s daily experience at GSE is still affected by the abuse and neglect she suffered before sanctuary. I am glad she is in your expert care!

  6. REPLY
    Audrey says

    My heart just breaks reading that Lady has been in captivity 46 years. The terror & torment that she has endured in all those years, simply stays with her. She does something wrong, she punished.
    I would love to get the cowardly miscreant that mistreated her & made her suffer to let him know how I feel about that. 😡 He would not forget me.

  7. REPLY
    Audrey says

    BTW reading how Lady responded to knocking over the container, broke my heart, I welled up in tears 😢

  8. REPLY
    Jean says

    I am so happy LADY is at the Sanctuary.
    My heart breaks for the mistreatment she endured💔. May Lady continue her healing with all the love and patience you have shown her and the other precious girls.🙏🙏🙏❤❤

  9. REPLY
    Nishant Bhajaria says

    This is so poignant. Thank you.

  10. REPLY
    Rachel says

    Those of us who have suffered emotional and / or physical trauma know all too well the long lasting effects. But with unconditional love and lots of patience from those you’re trying to trust, a blossoming begins. An essence of one’s self materializes behind the walls built for self protection. In time, slowly, every healing step strengthens us to trust more; to realize the potential that’s calling us. A transformative experience. But very individual in the progress. I have no doubt many animals – like elephants – suffer the same. I have hope for Lady. She already has experienced healing at the sanctuary; small but significant steps. She couldn’t be at a better place and my heart swells with happiness for her. Thanks for this update Sara. Cheers to Lady and all of you at the sanctuary making a difference. 💝

  11. REPLY
    Gayle says

    Oh Lady, I am so very sorry you had such a horrible life with humans who abused you. I’m so happy that you were finally rescued and are now in a safe place with humans who adore you and understand what it takes to help you heal. Nothing but love, kindness and happiness for you and your sisters for now and forever! ❤️

  12. REPLY
    Tammy says

    Reading this is so bittersweet it just breaks your heart to know the deep trauma these beautiful girls suffer with daily how they’ve become survivors so strong yet so fragile. I too wish there were an instant fix we do not want any of these beautiful elephants to suffer ever but at least with their rebirth at the Sanctuary they’ve got the best chance possible to at least work through and let go of some of that emotional pain and fear they’ve had to live with for so many sad long years, thank you Kat and Scott you’ve given so much for that we are truly grateful! Love and big hugs 🐘🌷🐘 💞 🐘🌷🐘 💞 🐘

  13. REPLY
    Patricia says

    My heart aches for my lovely little Lady. I am so beyond grateful that she is safe and treated with love and respect. I love her with all my heart. Hugs to everyone!

  14. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    Oh, Lady! You’re making wonderful progress and could not now be in a better place than at GSE where you will always be loved, cherished , supported and well-kept! ❤️
    We all wish we could magically create a “do-over” of your past, but that’s not possible. I think it’s greatly encouraging that, after Kat reassured you, you were able to quickly again relax. A lifetime of fear responses will be a part of your story forever, but hopefully less and less a part of your future.

  15. REPLY
    Debbie Sides says

    Bless her and so glad she’s at ESB.
    She has the rest of her life to go at her own pace.

  16. REPLY
    Charlotte Hansen says

    The best part of sanctuary is Kat and Scott!!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      We’re pretty partial to the elephants. They’re the best part!

  17. REPLY
    Carole Kramer says

    Lady, we have so much in common. Be in your own time. You are in a safe place. I send healing thoughts for your wellness. I love you. You are courageous. Heal yourself as you can. Trust your instincts and intelligence. Be well dear sister. Steady as you go. 🐘💜🌹💟☮️🐘

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Thank you so much.

  18. REPLY
    Ann-Marie Jacobs-Brown says

    What an absolute sin against all that is noble and beautiful! The suffering captive elephants endure just sickens me to my core and I will never ever be able to understand how one miserable, despicable little human can dominate these wondrous beings,, and beat them time and time again when they are just babies, screaming in pain – and weeping. Yes! Weeping! Just like us.

  19. REPLY
    Wim says

    Dear Lady, you are a magnificent sentient miracle. If only our tears and wishing vibes could heal you completely wouldn’t this be instant justice. Be blessed giant angel. ❤️🐘🤗

  20. REPLY
    Jillyp says

    Poor Lady, I weep for what she endured and that the memory is still with her 🥲
    Thank God she is with you at the sanctuary and gradually can heal.
    Dear Kat must have been upset too. Thank you for your loving gentleness and understanding the elephants ♥️♥️🌱🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘

  21. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thank goodness Lady and fellow residents have sanctuary now, gentleness

  22. REPLY
    Lynne Russert says

    How horrible to have that kind of fear so engrained in her mind. I hope with much love fm you guys she will heal soon.

  23. REPLY
    Terry Feleppa says

    BIG HUGS AND TRUMPETS to sweet Lady!!! I love her resilience and the peace and love you offer to her. Chronic PTSD is powerful. Love heals, and she is exactly where she needs to be!❤❤❤

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