Elephants, and Why to Honor Life is to Honor Death

This piece is not to try to convince or sway anyone’s judgment on the dying process, it is simply to share the infinite gifts I’ve learned from elephants as they take their last and most precious breath. There are many theories about the end of life and about the process a body goes through when it dies. Is it simply a last breath and your body decomposes or is there something more as our being, our soul if you will, transitions? There are arguments on all sides of this, with discussions that can become grossly impassioned, often stemmed from fear of the unknown or personal desire of not wanting to let go.

I’ve spent most of my life with elephants and I’ve shared experiences with them and through them that have touched the far reaches of my heart into the core of my being. They have shaped me, changed me and opened my entire being to a new way of living. Prior to cofounding The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995, I shared a belief that is common among today’s western society: that euthanasia is an act of ending suffering, to help eliminate pain of the terminal being and that this is the right thing to do. After living with elephants, watching and aiding with their recovery, learning the nuances of who they are as they rediscover their own identity and then watching how they seemingly prepare for death and truly honor the process of dying, my views have changed drastically.

Barbara upon arrival at sanctuaryBarbara arrived to the sanctuary, the second elephant but the first real rescue, grossly underweight. When you looked at her your heart broke. With her frail body and bones protruding she was the epitome of all that is wrong with captivity for elephants. But this was not Barbara, she was not frail or meek she was bigger than life with a presence that could be felt from across the valley. The first of many lessons from Barbara, who was wise beyond description, ‘they are not who they appear to be.’ In these formative years of sanctuary, being the first of its kind in the world, Barbara humbled us as we began to open our eyes to the full depth of sanctuary and the reality that it’s so much more than a vast, pristine, protected space.

After five incredible years, Barbara was the first elephant to pass away at the sanctuary. In my past, I would have called this one the darkest day of the sanctuary but thanks to Barbara, it was another lesson to be honored, shared and even celebrated. There were three of us with her as she took her last breath, without spoken word we laid our hands on her side. For the next 20 minutes she quite literally took us on her journey. What we felt and saw couldn’t be true, it was glorious, it was weightless and it was rejoiceful. One by one we stepped away, lost within our own thoughts, wondering if this is something to hold close to our hearts or to be shared. As we slowly started to talk in reflective whispers, we learned that each of us saw and felt the same thing. However, there was one thing that each of us felt that was different. In the moment, my western influenced mind said, this is the hole that makes the whole experience doubtful, the ‘see, I knew it was too good to be true’ moment. But this was quickly put into perspective when I realized that the thing that we all experienced that was slightly different was for our own personal growth. Together we shared an experience that would mold the deeper philosophy of sanctuary while the individual message morphed and molded who we are.

Barbara in elephant sanctuary pondIn the coming days as we reflected on the infinite blessings, gifts and lessons from Barbara, we realized that she knew that her passing was imminent. She was ailing but we didn’t think that she was close to dying, but Barbara somehow knew. A couple of weeks earlier, Barbara who was known for wandering to the far reaches of the property, stayed close to the other elephants. Each day, for a full day, one of the other elephants would split from their group, wander about 100 yards away, where they would remain alongside Barbara. It was quiet, almost too quiet, as they would graze and walk more delicately. Although Barbara was thin and walked with the grace of a soaring eagle, she was rarely still. The next day, it was another elephant, then another and another. There was intention to this but it didn’t make sense until we were reflecting after her passing- she had lessons for all of us, including the elephants. Knowing Barbara as we did, there is no doubt that she was not only passing on lessons but instructions as well. After all there was a sanctuary to mold, people to transform and a world to heal. Barbara’s mission and purpose knew no limits.

Barbara opened our minds and our hearts to a different side of death and with each elephant that passed, we learned more and more. Some of the elephants seemed to wait, hanging on until their friend was ok before they finally let go. Others seem to have energy within that needed to be released, anxiety that needed to be processed, fear that had yet to be relinquished or love that needed to be shared. Every elephant that passed away led us to not only honor death but to embrace it as an integral part of their life and their personal journey.

Barbara and Tarra at sanctuaryThroughout this time, we had other loved ones that passed away, dogs and cats and even family members. I carry a powerful memory of my grandfathers passing, which once again further reinforced that there is work to be done for the individual and those around them before they can fully let go. I was washing the barn one day, it was a day when I was the only one there, and I kept hearing a voice calling. At first it was ignored thinking that no one was there, then I put down the pressure washer and walked through the entire barn looking for the person calling me. Convinced that my imagination was running wild I went back to washing which can be quiet meditative and immediately the voice returned. This time I said, “Can I help you?” The subsequent minutes were once again astounding and life altering. It was my grandfather who had been ill and struggling to let go for some time. For him, life was all about family and I was the only grandchild who could not get away to go see him. With all of my intention I said, “I know that you want to say goodbye but I don’t need to be by your side to do this, I feel your love and I share with you all of my love.” Thanks to the lessons and gifts from Barbara, I added, “There is no need to be concerned, this time is one of the greatest gifts of life.”

At the conclusion of pressure washing I called my mom and I learned that she was already on her way to the airport because she had received a call about 90 minutes earlier that her father was taking his last breaths.

Losing a loved one, feathered, four legged, two legged, aquatic or scaled it’s always painful. It makes our hearts heavy and our emotions tear into little pieces. Our challenge with this is to realize that this is our sorrow, our fear and often our greed, it is not theirs. This is their time. Our gift to them is to honor what it is that they need to pass. Do they need to be alone or surrounded by family, do they carry unspoken feelings that need to be shared, do they simply need to know that those of us who will be left behind will be ok?

barbara in water at sanctuaryWithin the 5 years of Barbara’s life at sanctuary, things weren’t always easy for her. There were times that she would go down, lying on her side to help eliminate the ache caused by colic and she simply couldn’t get up without assistance. There were times that she was down for several hours, times that she had worn her skin raw and there were 3 years that we slept in the barn each night just in case she needed our help. When I hear of captive elephants being euthanized because they went down a couple of times or that they couldn’t get up for a few hours, I always think of Barbara. If we practiced the same medicine of many animal programs and most zoos, she would have been euthanized, quite possibly within her first year of sanctuary. Then I think about just how much of her life and her purpose would have been stolen from her and from each of us that were blessed to know her and learn from her.

Sanctuary is a safe haven that honors each individual for who they are and who they will evolve into, for what they need from us and for what we can learn from them. We are there for them, in whatever capacity they need, which in many cases is simply to ensure they remain protected, fed and nurtured. For some, that may include euthanasia and it is something that we don’t dismiss in certain circumstances. But if we are truly trying to respect these precious lives, we need to honor them through to the end of their natural life, for them, for us and for the greater good of our sacred world.

barbieOne of the biggest lessons elephants have taught me: Open your heart and mind to the intangible, the indefinable and the unknown and let the transformations shape your life’s journey.

This morning, with a heavy heart, I finished this blog that I had started a few months ago, because of events of last night. Some may see this as morbid and heavy, but the truth, as I have experienced through elephants, is that death is part of life to be honored and even revered as one of the most sacred elements of life.

Last night Kat helped a precious young chicken as she took her last breaths. We found her at feeding time, drinking water, with her face more than doubled the normal size. There were no obvious bite marks, but it appeared to be a toxic reaction to bees, a scorpion or more likely a snake. Within a couple of hours it was clear that our attempts to medicate and nurture her back to health were not working. Kat continued to hold her, trying to support her through the only options we had left, homeopathic remedies, and letting her know that she was loved. Her last breaths were not easy, which can be very typical for birds who are not well, as they have a few seconds of panic just before they let go. But Kat continued to hold her, to reassure her and to help her relax and accept the process.

Here within sanctuary, all life has value and those lives deserve and need to be nurtured, protected and honored. I am grateful that Kat was there last night for this precious little hen, to let her know that she mattered to this world and that she was not alone. Everyone deserves to have a tear shed over them.


  1. REPLY
    Tina Baraque says

    I was a hospice RN for years. I loved it. It is a gift to care for someone, especially in their final days. I learned many lessons. One is be careful of your motivations. Watching a loved one die, is difficult. Examine whether it is really because the animal is suffering too much, or is it because watching their suffering is difficult for you. All my animals have died natural deaths. It’s often more work to take care of them. And it is painful letting go and watching them decline. But the time at the end of life is important. You can generally manage symptoms. (Obviously, there are times when the only reasonable thing to do is euthanasia.) But this time is a gift. It’s time to reflect and reminisce. It’s a time to act with love while caring for the furry member of your family, just as you would take care of the human ones. . It’s a time to say goodbye.

  2. REPLY
    Ietje Breunis says

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m not sure what to respond, as it is touching the unsayable. But I know I was deeply touched by the soulful blogs on the passing of elephants in the early years of TES.

  3. REPLY
    Supraja Dharini says

    Reading the blog made me see the reason, my purpose that I have been given the opportunity to work for captive elephants…. understand our beloved elephants ( at the moment 3 female elephants in our Elephant Care Facility, Kurumbaram) better , open my heart, mind and soul and learn from them what it is that they want, feel and are trying to tell me…., I am always running around doing the management and paper work spending lesser and lessor time with the elephants……….it was they who communicated to me their suffering and that they wanted to be chain free and out of captivity….. they who had made me work day and night to get the facility ready and getting the permissions for them to be shifted out of their hell…….. thank you for sharing this wonderful part of your experience…. life has to be experienced….. I will try my best to learn and absorb.

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