EleFact Friday: Protected Contact That Heals

Many of our supporters know that a big part of sanctuary is honoring the space and boundaries of elephants. For today’s EleFACT Friday, we want to speak more about protected contact, what it means, and how it safeguards everyone here at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. We recently posted a video of Mara, Rana, and Bambi walking in the sunset, and shared that Scott kept his distance while filming. We received several questions about why this distance is important. 

A sanctuary that operates under protected contact means that there is an emphasis put on the safety of both humans and animals – physical and emotional safety. There is always a considerable distance or physical barrier between us when we are out in the habitat or are performing physical interactions with them, like training, treatments, or just giving affection. This management style is imperative to how we operate as a sanctuary. Our sanctuary, and our sanctuary philosophy, focuses on the elephants and the relationships they have with each other, rather than our relationships with them. Even though they live in captivity, elephants are still wild animals, and we do our best to treat them as such. Providing them their own space and a physical barrier allows them to heal. 

Many captive elephants have had issues with humans not respecting their boundaries for most of their lives, and this system provides a space that they learn is theirs. For elephants with aggressive pasts, understanding this separation exists often allows them to relax and they let their guard down, encouraging healing. Human relationships can now be developed on the elephant’s terms, rather than the human’s. We do offer affection, but only if an individual indicates they want it; elephants are not meant to be at our disposal and should have the ability to control when they are touched. While we enjoy that sort of interaction, this ensures that those feelings are mutual. 

There are different sanctuaries and organizations that operate differently, and this is not about whose approach is better. Different organizations have different goals, with elephants of different ages and different backgrounds, who are recovering from different traumas and have different needs. At Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, we do what we think is best for the elephants in our care, to promote their individual healing. 

Photo of Maia, looking gorgeous in her own space


  1. REPLY
    Alana says

    I think you guys are doing exactly the right approach, “on their terms” & safety, after all they are wild & BIG, accidents happen. It’s just so darn hard not to think..”I want to hug her” when I see every photo or video.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      It’s a truly common response to want to show them affection. And they do like affection at times, but we don’t offer it unless it’s “asked for”. We have to remember that hugs are human ways to show care. There are elephant equivalents to that.

  2. REPLY

    100%…respecting each other is the way to enable trust and healing over time.
    You guys are as precious as the ladies!!!!
    Have a fabulous weekend!!

  3. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    Given that you have, dare I say, “geriatric” elephants in your care, who have had bad experiences with humans in the past, I think this approach is the best. I too would love to get all cuddly with your girls, but they are sentient beings and probably much smarter than I am, so that would be presumptuous.
    At any rate, it’s clear that what you are doing is working – for their sake. ❤️

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      If you think about it, the same reasoning applies to humans. Not everyone would respond well to someone running up to them in their front yard and giving them a hug. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want affection at times. As always, we follow their lead. Wanting to give them affection shows you have a good heart. Knowing they may not always want it means you have a good brain!

  4. REPLY
    Carey says

    It makes good sense to me. This method clearly has transformed those elephants, from their physical appearance to each elephant developing their character , some within a group which is amazing to me that they still retain such sanity! And how good it must feel for Maia and Lady that there is sanity for them too in peace and feeling totally unthreatened. I’m no expert ; ) ofcourse ! All credit to the huge team of you, I see really touching change in these Ladies

  5. REPLY
    Angie Gibson says

    Building blocks for building trust in a safe surrounding❤️

  6. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman Eaton says

    Total respect for GSE because GSE has respect for these girls. After spending their lives being abused, disrespected by human exploiters, they have earned their right to as much privacy as can be possible , yet provide necessary care.

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