Doing What Comes Naturally

When it comes to animals, what is learned and what is instinctual? There are many different studies on the subject, but we can share what we’ve learned from the elephants we have known over the years. Each individual has intrinsic qualities that they were born with and others they had to learn in order to survive in captivity. 

Elephants that are raised in a natural environment learn essential skills from the others in their herd that become instinctual. The rules of nature are a part of their being and essential to survival. In a captive environment – particularly one that is sterile, neglectful, or abusive – elephants that learned those deep-rooted skills at an early age have to suppress that knowledge and master pure survival or coping skills simply to get through the day. External pressures directly result in harmful internal damage – mental, physical, and emotional. 

At sanctuary, we simply let innate responses prevail. Every elephant that has arrived at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil has, as soon as (or before) they exited their crate, begun pulling vines to snack on or eating grass. Some zoos claim that captive elephants, without supervision, would not know how to feed themselves, but anyone who knows what sanctuary is truly about understands that eating grass for an elephant is like breathing. Daily, we see elephants who graze, dust, splash in mud wallows, and swim. This is not something we teach them when they arrive; it’s not even something that other elephants teach them. It’s a remarkably simple response to a natural environment. 

When given the chance to let go of those harmful learned behaviors (however long it may require), elephants take the path to healing they need. When you let an elephant’s instincts prevail over painful adapted roles, we have found they return to a more intrinsic, essential state of being. Once the letting go begins, returning to natural behaviors appears to be intuitive. The elephants are unlearning what they had to do and who they had to pretend to be at zoos and circuses. True healing begins with freedom on all levels. 

Photo of Lady (and her hay hat) in a favorite grazing spot


  1. REPLY
    Zoi says

    It’s hard just to read that animals in captivity have to suppress their knowledge and learn to survive day after day. My dear Lady looks so cute wearing a light hat for summer 😊

  2. REPLY
    Susan Flewelling says

    Lady is a real charmer! 🥰🥰🥰🥰

  3. REPLY
    Elizabeth Hook says

    This post is so well written on the mental damage of captivity. Thank you so much for undoing this damage.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Thank you for those kind words.

  4. REPLY
    Alice says

    It will be interesting to see how quickly Guillermina picks up the natural behaviors and is able to let go of the terrible environment she has been subject to. Of course, she has her mother and her new “aunts” that will help teach her! Thank you again so much for what you do at GSE.

  5. REPLY
    Susan says

    Time for the spring Hay Beret!!! 👒❤️🐘. I wish the zoo that Lucy is in would let people with Elephant and Sanctuary experience go in and evaluate her! (Not to mention any suggestions! 😉). We have witnessed so many beautiful things at sanctuary, you would think more people would see that Sanctuary can and does, heal!! I am so thankful for all the Ellies, past and present, that have had the chance at Sanctuary. I continue to hope for the arrival of future residents. Love and hugs ❤️🐘❤️

  6. REPLY
    Patricia J Richardson says

    A lovely, hopeful post on the innate strength of these wondrous creatures! Thank you all for your loving, studied and smart care and for creating a place of joy we may all visit and be part of…💜🌺🐘

  7. REPLY
    Anita Janusz says

    So so true….and we all love watching them, just living in sanctuary…it is like watching them in a wild….:-))…their mud baths and swimming are the cutest….:-) Lady is so so sweet…..they all are realy…so glad there is this place for them to call home….finally

  8. REPLY
    Julie says

    This is absolutely. inspiring! We could all take a lesson.

  9. REPLY
    Eileen says

    Love Miss Lady. She is my favorite. ♥

  10. REPLY
    Alana says

    It must be so rewarding to watch this process & share there journey. I’m sure enjoying it from afar. Thank you for sharing all the updates, milestones & photo’s.

  11. REPLY
    Sunny says

    Gorgeous Lady with her classy hat 😻

  12. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    LadyBug is SO stinking’ cute! 🤗😁

    So…quick question: have you ever experienced an elephant arriving at (any) Sanctuary, who has never experienced ANY natural environment, EVER? (Like Gillerimina?). For her, there are no natural behaviors to revert to.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      It doesn’t really have a quick answer, though it would seem that it should. But, to sum it up as quickly as possible – we have worked with elephants in the past who’ve had almost no natural stimulus, living in small, enclosed barns and other similar situations. Guillermina’s situation is particularly unique because of the lack of visual stimulation. While other elephants might live in sterile environments (as she does) those elephants can generally see things she currently cannot. But, she has been introduced to natural food sources throughout her life. Even though she’s never been able to pull vines or snack on grass directly from the ground, she does know what those things are and has seemingly always understood. So, the instinct appears to be there in elephants who have lived lives of deprivation.

  13. REPLY
    Wim says

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection.
    Elephants lived in balance with nature long before sapiens.

  14. REPLY
    Marilyn Edwards says

    This is my hope for lovely Lucy 🐘 stuck in horrid Edmonton Valley Zoo. Please God not for much longer

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