When it comes to debates about ‘protected contact’ versus ‘free contact’ and what constitutes a loving relationship between caregivers and elephants, people tend to hold very strong opinions. Those in the ‘free contact’ camp believe that a caretaker cannot have a strong bond with an elephant without unprotected touch. In our experience, this is simply not true- and we have worked in both PC and non-dominance FC. While our relationships with the elephants matter, we understand that interactions between a human caregiver and an elephant will never be able to replicate the deep connection and understanding that naturally occurs between elephants. That is as it should be and what is most important.
The unique ways in which we humans can offer love and support may at times be exactly what an elephant needs, but true growth and healing will always include becoming a valued member of a herd where they can safely work through the emotional pain that may have plagued them for decades. Herd members offer each other a familiar touch, and a common language and experience that awakens the shared memory of what it means to be an elephant, and allows them to be whole again.
While all ‘protected contact’ (PC) programs are not alike, PC does not mean that caregivers do not show the elephants affection. We all know that touch is healing, and that is not something that needs to be abandoned because elephants have their own protected space which allows caregivers to tend to them in safety. Some argue that PC can be a hard, rigid, and cold-hearted method of training, but that very much depends on how it is implemented. At Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, PC means that while there is a barrier between caregiver and elephant, it is still an open fence system that allows touch, petting, chatting and singing — just being together.
Several years ago, we cared for an elephant who was struggling through the loss of one of her best friends. It was painful for her and painful for us knowing how much she was suffering. When other elephants tried to interact with her she would spend a few minutes with them and then just walk away. At that time, she did take comfort in having a trusted caregiver close by. While this particular elephant didn’t desire coddling or touching or talking, she was soothed by a
human presence simply sitting in silence twenty yards away. Although she would pull away from offers of physical affection, if you tried to leave before she wanted you to, she would step toward you to let you know it wasn’t time. We were able to perceive what she needed because we had taken the time to observe and understand her unique personality rather than impose our own ideas of what comfort would or should mean to her.
We have chosen PC for ESB because it keeps caregivers safe and allows the elephants to return to a life that more closely resembles what they would have in nature–that is what true sanctuary is about. It is not the barrier between caregiver and elephant that defines the relationship; it is the depth of affection, caring, and love that our caregivers offer. By approaching each and every elephant with respect and an open heart and making a real effort to understand how to help them through their darkest moments, we help facilitate the full level of healing that elephants rescued from captivity need. Rest assured, allowing them to live as autonomous beings in a safe space where they can recover from a lifetime of hurt, also includes doting on them, offering a gentle trunk rub or sleeping inside or near the barn when they need someone close.
Like everything else in life, creating a place of refuge for elephants is about striking the right balance. It’s about being there when needed, offering space to grow, and providing support during emotional struggles. It is also about knowing when to step back and allow the natural intuition and bond between elephants that have been passed down through thousands of years to take over the healing. Our ultimate goal at ESB is to provide the best of both worlds, the companionship of herd members and a safe and nurturing environment where these sensitive and intelligent beings can live as they wish, free from fear and human need and expectation for the very first time — all for the love of elephants.