Elephant Adaptability

A simple concept: sanctuary provides a chance for elephants to be themselves. The immediate problem with this concept is there are often disagreements about who they really are. In the US and abroad, there is a gross misunderstanding of captive elephants. The general public knows they are intelligent, sensitive, emotional and self-aware, but for some reason those that work closest to them constantly underestimate and undermine all of these. We have heard many people say that zoo or circus elephants won’t know how to function at a sanctuary, they won’t know how to feed themselves and they won’t learn how to socialize. All of this is simply untrue.

Earlier this year a former zoo curator was amazed that when allowed the opportunity, elephants would pick oranges off of trees. Eating and foraging are one of the most basic aspects of elephant survival; it baffles me that even this simplistic element is underestimated. I have heard some people that work with elephants through extreme dominance say that “elephants just want to kill people”; a viewpoint that is used as an excuse to need to establish and maintain dominance over them. Another eye opening experience as to how misunderstood elephants are was at a conference of captive elephant managers. There was a presentation by an international expert in elephant behavior, Dr. Joyce Poole, who has multiple decades of experience observing and analyzing wild elephant behavior. Following her presentation and remote question and answer session, there was a general voice among the group that criticized Joyce saying that she doesn’t truly know elephants. This belief was because the behavior that she describes in elephants, is not what is seen in captivity. I was shocked by the response then and even today I remain amazed at how clueless many professionals are about true elephant behavior. Why are they so misunderstood?

Ultimately I feel that there are a limited number of people in the world that truly understand elephants. For the most part, elephants have been portrayed as lumbering beasts; they have been belittled for our entertainment and in doing so humans have developed a gross misunderstanding of who elephants are. We have judged them based on what we see in captivity; even their keepers are limited to who and what they see because the elephants live within such sterile and restricted confines that prevent them from truly being themselves.

Jenny was an elephant that was sequestered to a brutally small holding pen for years. While there she was “analyzed” by an expert who stated that Jenny was a “people elephant”-which is a phrase simply used to state that she gets along well with people and doesn’t need the companionship of other elephants. Not only was this assessment grossly shortsighted but there was also an obvious ulterior motive. This expert also went on to say that she should be artificially inseminated and kept at this derelict shelter. But when you think about the label she was given, what other choice did she have? All she had close to her was people, and as an emotionally complex and highly social being, she is going to seek that inherent need where she can get it. Just yesterday I told Kat, who formally took care of Jenny when she resided at sanctuary, that Jenny was given this label. Kat literally laughed out loud and shook her head in apparent disbelief; Jenny was anything but a people elephant. Jenny, who is known worldwide for her reunion with Shirley at TES, truly adored other elephants. From the moment she arrived at sanctuary she sought the attention and friendship of other elephants. People in Jenny’s eyes were necessary and to a certain extent tolerable, but with other elephants to socialize with, people were just there to serve. If she didn’t like what you had or if you didn’t respect her space she would turn away, or toss the food you offered to the side and turn to her real friends. This is one of the blessings of sanctuary; it allows the elephants to be who they truly are, even if it means they aren’t “perfect”.

Everywhere we go, and in discussions around the world, people want to know how elephants will adapt to having more freedoms. Ultimately, in 1995 when I co-founded the first natural habitat elephant sanctuary, we didn’t know with certainty what would happen. What we did know was that elephants are a remarkably instinctual and adaptable species. They had been forced to adapt to a life of captivity that is grossly different than their natural lives, it seemed perfectly logical that they would adapt easily to a life that more closely resembled nature.

When you offer elephants the autonomy and freedoms that come with sanctuary, you give them a chance to be who they really are, exposing the inherent traits of the species and the individual. In every case that I have personally experienced, each and every elephant changes, they grow immensely and seamlessly adapt to a more natural state of being. We can now say, without any hesitation or doubt, based on the experiences of two renowned sanctuaries in the US and others in Asia, that captive elephants, regardless of the traumas, isolation, abuse and neglect, adapt, learn, heal and recover. They truly and unanimously thrive when you offer them a true sanctuary life.

Captivity for elephants is filled with compromises that have taken a dramatic toll on the health of elephants. When given the opportunity to live a more natural life, it is truly remarkable what transpires. We have witnessed one example after another of elephants adapting from their confined, isolated, captive lives and into sanctuary. For those that know me, you know that I could talk for hours (literally) about the stories that I’ve been privileged to witness firsthand. One example is Bunny, who had lived alone for 40 of her 45 years in captivity. Bunny was captured from the wild as a very small infant and sent to the US to a small Midwest zoo. For a few years there were several other young elephants that would arrive to the zoo for a couple of months before being shipped off to another zoo. After the first few years, from the time Bunny was 7 or 8 years old, she lived isolated from other elephants but surrounded by people. There is a list of more that 200 keepers that cared for her during her years at the zoo. Those that knew her best suggested that she would stress and die during transit, she would not know what to do with open fields, and she would not know how to interact socially with other elephants. All of these presumptions were 100% wrong. After a few tentative minutes of introductions, Bunny melded into the herd, playing, socializing, talking and grazing alongside her new family. Literally within 24 hours there was no way that you could guess that she was new, except that due to her lack of physical fitness, she couldn’t walk as fast or as far as the others. She was trumpeting so frequently with pure and undeniable joy that she actually ruptured some small blood vessels in her nose and caused a slight nosebleed. Bunny, having never spent a night outside in her life, was the instigator to get the others to join her for after hours grazing. Soon after her arrival, Bunny and her best friends Jenny and Shirley stopped returning to the barn at night, instead finding comfort and shelter with each other and embracing the freedom of choice that comes with sanctuary. It wasn’t long before Bunny was climbing up and down hills, in and out of ponds, and literally encouraging others to let their own inhibitions go. Her transition from solitary to intimate herd member surprised all of us, former caretakers, and sanctuary advocates. It was experience after experience like this that reinforced our theories and ultimately led us to want to share this same opportunity with elephants around the globe.

The reality is simple, if any species is not given the opportunity to live a different way, you will never know who they are or what they are fully capable of. If you don’t give a child an instrument, you will never know if they can play it. If you don’t give elephants the opportunity to socialize or graze or make their own choices, you will never know how they will respond. But we do know that in every case, with every species, nature rules and instinctual traits take over. For captive elephants, they all deserve the chance to live and experience life as nature intended. We can’t give them back their complete freedom, but we can offer them sanctuary. All you have to do is look at the transformed lives of Jenny, Bunny, Maggie, Winkie, Sissy, Shirley, Toka, Iringa, Wanda, Roni, Nic, Flora, Tarra…the list goes on and on. Each of these elephants had spent their lives in captivity, all had experienced a life of compromise and isolation in some form, and all have adapted and truly thrived at sanctuary. Elephants are amazing, but their true nature is beyond the description that words can offer.


  1. REPLY
    Shelley Morris says

    You have encouraged me today Scott. I have been struggling so much with a lack of courage. I find that thinking back to the stories from the past of how jenny and bunny and so many others who lived so many dark and a difficult years causes me to want to turn away and not think about it because it is so distressing. when i read the stories or see news clips of those elephants who continue to suffer today it’s even worse. But when i read this today it encouraged me so much…encouraged me to not turn away but instead find the strength to keep looking … to keep caring … because ultimately you have painted the picture with your words of the very reason why we have to… because it is worthwhile, it is necessary, it is imperative that every elephant has the opportunityto mentally physically and emotionally become whole again and be embraced amongst a loving elephant family. if they have the courage to heal after a lifetime of abuse then you have encouraged me to not look away but continue to look at those who are still waiting for that opportunity. Blessings to you and Kat in your work.

  2. REPLY
    Mary-Ann Holm says

    Thank you so much for this inciteful blog. I always relish reading your writing about your elephant experiences over the years. This blog like much of your other writings resonates with those of us who are trying so hard to see Lucy retired to sanctuary.

    We are grateful to learn from your vast experience as it helps us become better advocates. Much appreciation to both you and Kat for being a great voice for these magnificent beings and helping so many realize a life as close to possible to what was stolen from them.

    You have my respect and admiration.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      thank you 💜

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