It’s amazing the things you miss that you don’t even realize. It took a visit to see Maia and Guida to realize how comforting the smell of elephant dung is. Yes, I understand it’s strange, but it has a grassy smell to it and automatically triggers wonderful memories of relationships with elephants that have taught me many meaningful lessons in life. As well as them being my teachers, they have also been wonderful friends. Spending time with elephants who are on a journey of healing and self discovery creates a bond that time and distance can’t change. The joys I have personally experienced at sanctuary are some of the highest points in my life, and the losses some of the hardest. It’s part of what makes it so hard to put sanctuary into words, but is all brought back by the smell of poop.
No matter how prepared you think you are, seeing new elephants for the first time is always different than you imagined. Where Maia and Guida are concerned, most of what I had heard, and saw through photos, was negative. Guida is severely underweight and her skeletal appearance brings concern with it. Concern of what exactly the cause is and it is something we can ‘fix’. Maia is supposed to have become aggressive after years of being tolerant in a situation that would test anyone’s patience. She hospitalized a keeper and is now the ‘bad elephant.’
As we drive through the hilly rows of coffee plantations in Minas Gerais, I try to prepare myself to ensure the best use of the short time we will have with them. They are lifelong circus elephants and although I know I need to collect data, my primary goal is to let them know that some humans are different than what they’ve come to know-which is no short task in just a couple of hours.
They live down a road that is lined with several farms and it is strange that as you get to the last one, there are elephants just steps away. The scene is unfortunately familiar: elephants on chains, both swaying at the boredom of being restricted to an area that offers such an intelligent being zero mental stimulation. Maia and Guida are in a small hotwire enclosure that is divided in half by another strand of hot-wire, minimizing their interactions with each other.
First, I walk towards Maia, saying hello to Guida as I pass her. This is done purposefully because Maia is more overlooked. From what we have been told, Guida is the favorite, therefore treated that way. I wanted to start things out with letting Maia know that she is also very important and I wanted to meet her first. She continues to sway and as I get closer her eyes widen in distrust-not a surprise. I immediately begin speaking in a soft tone, letting her know that I understand her concern, but I would never hurt her. I start to talk about some of the other elephants I have known that have also been misunderstood and that we know she’s not a bad girl. As I sit cross legged, continuing to talk about sanctuary and Brazil she softens visibly. Her muscles begin to relax and her whole body is more at ease, a much welcomed response. Her face also reveals a lighter side of her. She starts to do a cute little squinty thing every once and a while, scrunching her face in a way that is impossible not to smile at. Her personality is trying to peek out from the wall she usually has up.
After talking for some time, I get up and let her know I need to take photos of her so others like me can get to know her and care for her and support her from afar. She is definitely in need of love and caring, even if it comes from thousands of miles away. As I approach the fence initially, she curiously come to get closer. I take a couple of steps back, even though I am out of her reach, and let her know that we don’t know each other very well and the camera makes you lose perspective, so if she comes close, I need to back up. This happens 2 or 3 times before she understands what I am communicating and chooses to respect the new rule in her life. Smart girl. Boundaries are important not just for human’s relationships, but with elephants as well.
I spend more time observing, talking, taking photos and offering up the few snacks I brought with me-unsure if they would allow me to give anything to them. Maia happily eats what I offer, as she continues with her slow rhythmic sway that is only temporarily assuaged by her treats. The motion is almost non-stop with the front of her body being led side by side by her head. I tell her it’s time to spend some time with Guida, throw her a granola bar that has travelled all the way from the US (a treat I am not sharing with any humans) and leave to meet the very thin cutie across the way.
Guida is definitely thin, although she looks like she put on some weight since Scott visited her almost a year ago. She could use another 1000 lbs. and a whole lot of muscle development, but it doesn’t take away from the almost babyish look she has to her face. Everything about her appearance is submissive and delicate. She is always stereotyping, but her motion is not gentle or soothing, it is rapid agitated and she disappears deeply into it. She bobs her head up and down, wiggling it side to side at times, with almost no body movement at all-sadly, she is a living bobble head. It speaks to her more delicate mental strength and how Maia being ‘tough’ has served to allow her to protect her sanity a bit.
Sometimes when you look at an elephant, what you see first are the negative things. The stereotyping, how thin she is, her surroundings, but after a few moments most of that fades away and you are able to see them on a deeper level. This is when their true beauty comes out. Guida is lovely, a flower in dismal surroundings. Because of the weird storm lighting (a storm that was meant to be terrible, but skirted around us) all of her fuzz is illuminated and makes her look adorable. Although she is lost in her repetitive motion she still has a sweetness that comes across, making you ache to fix all that is wrong.
She is also happy with her new treats, but barely skips a beat in her stereotyping to pick them up. While watching her, Guida engages in several behaviors that indicate she is in pain. The source of the pain isn’t possible to determine with the limited time, at least not with certainty. Her teeth are probably causing her both pain and issues with putting on weight, but her stance also indicates that she may have something going on with her GI tract as well. After eating her banana stalks for a bit, and receiving some carrots, she puts her trunk in the side of her mouth repeatedly. This can be a begging behavior, but since she literally does it while holding a carrot, that is pretty much ruled out. It’s also another indicator of pain. She’s clearly uncomfortable on some level and needs some major changes in her life. Although her current situation is sad, she has not lost hope, which is encouraging. She’s still in there.
We talk to their keepers some more, to find out what they think about the girls and how they see them. This is always interesting, especially when it comes from individuals with no true elephant or behavioral experience. Her one main keeper has a much gentler presence than the other two men, and he seems to be the one who knows them best. He seems to truly care for them and wishes they had something better. He does what he can, but their situation allows for very little. Maia has gone after him once, but he admits it was only when she had escaped and he was trying to get her back- he understands her reaction, and that in itself speaks volumes.
After spending about 5 hours with Maia and Guida, it is time to go. There is only so much time you can spend with two elephants who continuously rock before that is all you begin to see and you lose the connection you have formed with them. I am surprised that it isn’t harder to walk away from them, mostly because I thought they would be worse. And seeing that Maia’s personality is not buried too deeply, it allows me to know her healing process will move forward by leaps and bounds when given space, respect and patience. She is an elephant that will blossom almost immediately and show everyone the beauty she has felt it was necessary to cover up in order to survive. She will soak up everything sanctuary has to offer and be truly stunning in every way.
Both of these ladies have had a rough life and they are long overdue for a change. They need it, deserve it and it’s just a few short months away. Please help us provide them with the life they don’t even realize they are longing for. They need all of us. Give a gift towards their rescue or share their story (easy share buttons below) so they can be brought to sanctuary.