This photo is one of those beautiful shots that wouldn’t always be used- why? Simply because there is a fence in the background. Some would like to believe that sanctuary is about giving elephants land and setting them ‘free’. The amusing part of that theory is that zoos see it as negative (because they feel sanctuaries can’t provide needed care if elephants are just running wild) but animal lovers see as positive. In true sanctuary, elephants aren’t simply ‘let go’, there is a balance. The sad reality is that we have to deal with and be prepared for many issues that may possibly arise due to the impact that captivity has on elephants. While making one giant fence would be easier and prettier, it doesn’t serve the elephants’ complex requirements, just the humans, and that time in their lives is over.
5 Yards in Each Habitat
For those that may not know, each habitat at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil will be constructed with 2 or 3 small yards connected to 2 larger yards, then connected to an enormous space. This design keeps several possibilities in mind- planning for the worst, but hoping for the best. The small yards allow for a safer and more comfortable introduction of elephants while providing them with enough space to graze and experience sanctuary. Some elephants may take longer than others to become part of the herd. At times, it’s seamless and almost instant, but for insecure elephants, they may need the support of a barrier to take those next steps. These smaller yards also allow for medical management of any critical care cases. Elephants that arrive at sanctuary are often not in the best of health, and of course we hope that they will live until they are very old. If at any time they need more intensive medical care, we want to be able to provide them with a comfortable space to do so, that allows any companion to stay with them while keeping them closer to the Elephant Care Center.
The two bigger yards can provide for more extensive social issues between elephants. If there are two elephants that are unsure or don’t get along for a time, they can be separated without compromising the vast space that sanctuary provides. Each yard has access to many pastures and wooded areas, fresh water and a manmade pond. The divider fence also serves for some human safety purposes. If an elephant goes down, if the fence breaks, if the four wheeler breaks, we can move elephants over to one side and safely work in the other. While it would be phenomenal if none of these events ever happen, in the decades we hope to be caring for elephants, we have to be prepared.
Although the habitat is divided, the goal is for each area to remain open to the others at all times. There are several openings along fence lines, allowing for elephants to go in and out of each yard in numerous places. Currently, with Maia and Guida, all of the yards are open to each other (except the second big yard which is almost finished), which is how we hope it to remain as we begin to welcome our next rescues.
Providing Safe Space to Heal
While some individuals may have an altruistic view of what sanctuary is, we have to make sure that it provides the security elephants need in order to feel safe and allow themselves to be fully vulnerable so they can heal from the emotional traumas of decades past. They need to be able to receive extensive medical care if necessary, while still providing them with the values that form the core of sanctuary. And even for the healthy and able elephant, true autonomy sometimes means providing them with the ability to not share space with another elephant if that is their choice, while encouraging their healing and working towards a more cohesive future.
It is easy to avoid having fences in photos and not talking about some of the struggles that come with sanctuary, but it’s not real. We want our portrayal of ESB and the elephants in our care to be as transparent and honest as possible. This mean sharing when the elephants’ journeys aren’t ‘perfect’ and also that ESB is designed for these imperfect moments. It’s hard to think sanctuary is anything but perfect when watching Maia and Guida, but their ease into this part of their life and their relationship with each other was remarkable and special. We don’t put this expectation on any other elephants, but love to be pleasantly surprised.
Just know, that we will share with you the good, the bad and the ugly because it is all part of an awe-inspiring bigger picture.