What impact do humans have on the elephants they care for and how do we impact their daily lives.” This is a question that we are asked often, and one that we have spent much time observing and asking ourselves as well.

Elephants (and humans) are complex, emotional, intelligent beings and therefore, there really is no one simple, definitive answer.In captivity, humans typically have an enormous effect on every aspect of an elephant’s life, dictating every decision, every day:when they eat, when they go out, when they come in, what other elephants they interact with, and what other activities their day provides.

This is why autonomy is such an important part of sanctuary. True sanctuaries try to minimize the impact humans have on elephants while ensuring their physical and emotional well-being. As caregivers, we do need to care for many physical issues caused by decades of unsuitable conditions, but we try to minimize the time and interference they cause in their every day. We are still able to provide elephants with ample space, allowing them to choose where they go, who they spend time with,while the ability to forage allows them to choose what and when they eat. These freedoms are new to most elephants and our goal is to let them have as much time as possible being elephants and behaving similarly to how they would in nature. These seemingly small choices allow them to regain some control over their own lives, it empowers them and gives them the confidence to rediscover who they truly are.

Beyond the physical impact we have on elephants is the more in-depth and complex emotional impact we have on the elephants in our care. Human attitudes, behaviors, perceptions,mood and stress levels affect not only our interactions with the elephants, but can also influence their interactions with each other.

Data continues to be collected proving what we already know; that elephants are social and sensitive beings. What has not been studied comprehensively yet is that this sensitivity is not limited to within their own species; it extends to the humans around them as well. Each elephant reacts differently, based on their individual personality, but the humans around them have the ability to impact each and every one. We have personally worked with elephants that want to take on all of your worries and sadness, some that attempt to bring comfort to a person, while other elephants want nothing to do with the heavy emotions and steer clear of interactions during those times. Similarly our positive emotions can help comfort or console an elephant when they are in a difficult place, each of our emotions can cause different behaviors and responses in each individual elephant.

For this reason, when seeking out new caregivers, one of the characteristics we look for are individuals with life experience who seems to know themselves. This may seem like a strange quality to seek in applicants, but it is integral to how well a caregiver learns to interpret elephant behaviors. There are scientific standards that help us judge elephant behavior: posturing, vocalizations and the like. But, there are many subtleties that delve much deeper into understanding each elephant’s behavior and personality.

As humans, we are imperfect, our life experiences help make us who we are, but they also help determine how we interpret different situations. You can take 10 people and have them watch the same human interaction, where they can’t hear the words that are actually spoken, and you will likely get 10 different interpretations. Most of these interpretations will be filtered by their own experiences and emotions. Now imagine watching elephants interact with each other, subtle shifts in weights, touches, changes in facial expressions and the interpretations that must be made on them. A very slight tightening of the mouth can easily go unnoticed and be the only sign you get of oncoming aggression. Just the same, one elephant sticking its tail straight out can mean one thing, while in another elephant it can mean the complete opposite.

A simple example of interpreting the same behavior in two completely different ways is an elephant that came to sanctuary several years ago. We were told that you couldn’t drive any large machinery around her because she was extremely fearful and would react very poorly (an opinion based on observation). In sanctuary what we discovered was that she was not afraid of large vehicles at all, but was actually extremely excited and became incredibly playful and animated when they approached. There are many behaviors that can be attributed to both negative and positive emotions, fear/elation, aggression/play, so it was a reasonable assumption. But in this case, the interpretation was probably clouded by the fact that she had been labeled a ‘killer,’ and those labels often provide a negative filter through which humans assess them, having a detrimental effect on the lives of the elephants who bear them. Because of an elephant’s size and the damage they can cause to each other and humans, many behaviors are quickly interpreted as negative. Although, it is also just as easy to go in the other direction and label things as ‘play’ if that is what the person is looking for. As humans it can be hard to put our views and emotions aside and see the behavior for what it truly is.

Our interpretations of their behaviors determine how we manage each elephant;it is how we decide if they ‘like’ each other, how they are feeling, and when they are ready for new things like introductions. Seeking out caregivers who are very self-aware, who know their own shortcomings and how their life experiences skew how they interpret things, helps to ensure that caregivers are seeing the behaviors for what they truly are.

As for introductions, if it’s human comfort or elephants comfort, and which elephant gets priority if there’s a group?– Again it’s all very individual. With such a complex and intelligent being you can’t have a rulebook or set of steps and a timeline that is going to work for every elephant. You base the decision on what is best for the elephants (not the people) but our judgment can be clouded by our opinions and interpretations. With elephants, you must respect and plan for the extremes of a situation – hoping for the best-case scenario while planning for the worst. If you have a group of elephants, and one is much more apprehensive and insecure than the others, that would be the elephant by which you gauge your actions. The others may be ready before he/she is, but your goal as the caregiver is to make everyone involved as comfortable as possible. It is much easier to go slowly and try to ensure things go well than rush things and possibly have to take two steps backwards.

Likewise, if the people involved with the introduction are stressed, worried, and anxious, the elephants will pick up on this. Just as we are sensitive to those around us who are stressed or anxious, elephant sensitivities to those emotions are multiplied. When elephants are surrounded by worry, it can cause them to wonder if there is something they should be worried about. The last thing we want as caregivers is for our presence to have a negative impact on the elephants.

So much is based on subtleties, interpretation and nuances that all we can do is make the best decision we feel at the time based on what we know through science and believe through interpretation. We, as the people responsible for the elephants’ care, strive to shut out all outside criticisms and concerns, listen closely to our intuition and what the elephants are showing us and try to make honest, clear decisions that best serve all of the elephants under our care.


Credit to ElephantVoices for use of their gesture database and accompanying photos.  “Poole, J.H. & Granli, P.K. 2009. ElephantVoices Gestures Database”






  1. REPLY
    Naomi Radunski says

    It’s a travesty that we are so unaware of the behaviour of entities that share our immediate living zone, and here we are learning at a distant about an animal that most western people will never see outside of a zoo or circus. Our insensitivity to other species is remarkable; as you point out in this blog, some elephants seem to behave empathically to the mood states of humans – and presumably other animals, too.
    But to imagine that a captive-bred elephant has the same emotional spectrum as a wild-living elephant is once again to underestimate the inequity between elephants and humans. A captive who has been diminished, punished, restrained and directed since babyhood is a completely different being from who was born and reared in its family, learned from its family and follows natural needs and rules.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      There is definitely truth to the statement that elephants in captivity aren’t the same as elephants in the wild. We have worked with some stunningly beautiful African elephants, but any time we have seen wild African elephants, there is a beauty that is lost in captivity, a presence and radiance that is extinguished by the hardships of having your life controlled (I use African elephants because neither of us has seen Asian elephants in the wild). But, I think it is unfair to say that captive elephants don’t have the same emotional spectrum as wild elephants, they have just had to shut down many of those emotions to simply be able to make it through the day. Each elephant is very individual; elephants born in captivity close down much faster than those wild caught, but they all have the potential to revert back to what is the core of all elephants. They still have the capacity of all of those emotions, and that is part of the healing that we are blessed to see at sanctuary. As they find comfort in their surroundings and their herd members, they start to allow all of the layers that they have buried their emotions under, peel away. As corny as it may sound, it is like a rediscovery and a rebirth of who they once were many decades ago. The depth of caring, nurturing, and love is still there- the things we have witnessed the elephants doing for each other has demonstrated that fact time and time again. They just have to feel comfortable enough and strong enough to allow themselves to go to a vulnerable place that has brought them so much pain in the past. It’s beautiful to watch, and is a huge part in why we do what we do. We have seen just how much is truly taken away from captive elephants by watching them get it back- and we both believe, full heartedly, that it’s there, in all of them. I am by no means saying this is easy for them, for some it will always be a work in progress. But no matter how much work they have to put into it (and some of them do put in a very conscious effort) you still see that emotional depth return, even if it is little by little, or built up elephant by elephant.

      Most captive born elephants will never feel the depth of love that a true family herd will provide to a wild-born elephant. But, wild-born babies are captured, have often watched their families killed, shipped away, and “broken” as early as a few months old. The emotional damage they suffer from this doesn’t compare to any other trauma an elephant will face, it stays with them forever. Most captive born elephants will be able to feel the depths of love that only a mother can provide. This love may not be the same, they won’t have their aunties around them, but they will experience that protection and affection that defines a mother. There are cases where elephant mothers do not want to or do not know how to rear their calves, but the calves are often taken under the wing of another elephant. It may be limited, it may come much later in life, and it may not be perfect, but captive born elephants will receive enough affection, from others that they love, to develop the emotions that help define an elephant. Thank you, we truly appreciate your comment and the depth to which your heart obviously feels for these beings.

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