From Nicole: Exploring Relationships With Elephants

We often speak of the complexities of elephant behavior and how understanding the nuances of care is the most difficult part of the job. But it is always interesting to hear the perspective on that topic from someone who has a history of working with elephants when they arrive at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. Nicole, an experienced caregiver, is currently working at ESB and will be sharing some of her thoughts about the sanctuary and her observations of each elephant over the course of the next few weeks. This is Nicole’s second trip to the sanctuary and she will be returning a couple of more times throughout the year. Today, she talks a little bit about her background, how that incorporates into what we do here at sanctuary, and what she hopes to take away from her visit.

Prior to ESB, my background with elephants was rooted in positive reinforcement training (PRT) that was very straightforward. The foundational skills of PRT were deeply embedded into what I was trained to do and how I was trained to work around elephants. This led to an environment where safety and perfection were at the forefront of every day. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as safety should always be a priority and in an emergency we could accomplish necessary veterinary procedures because there was such a strong training foundation. However, this type of environment didn’t leave a lot of room for me to learn how to listen to what an elephant was trying to tell me. To listen to what they needed. And it didn’t leave a lot of room for the elephants to grow emotionally either because they weren’t being heard. How can they be heard if no one is listening?

Working with ESB and seeing a different management style has been very eye opening and allowed me to explore a type of relationship with elephants that I hadn’t previously understood. It has been a learning curve for me to say the least, as I’m having to let go of some of that more technical foundation that’s deeply rooted and allow myself to be vulnerable. As someone who avoids uncomfortable verbal conversations, doesn’t wear my emotions on my sleeve, and has spent years working to improve my communication skills with various types of people, it is no surprise that communicating with elephants doesn’t come naturally to me. 

It has only been a short while that I have worked towards really listening to elephants, and it’s already very clear that it makes a world of difference. Seeing subtle shifts in their muscle tension or feeling a change in their breathing, and acknowledging that you recognize how they may be feeling seems to open a door that brings mutual respect and a level of trust. As does letting them know when you aren’t at 100% or have hesitations about something. Honesty and openness are seeming to be vital aspects that change the dynamic between human and elephant. I am very excited to continue this journey and to continue to learn not only from the staff, but from the elephants. 

Photo of Maia by Nicole


  1. REPLY
    Johnny says

    Beautiful! Thank you Nicole for sharing your story. I’m already looking forward to hearing more.

  2. REPLY
    Melinda says

    Wonderful post, thank you!

  3. REPLY
    Pamela hall says

    Thank you for your dedication to elephants, your knowledge and willingness to learn from them as we learn through you.

  4. REPLY
    Wim says

    Beautiful story that opens up a totally new world.
    Must be wonderful to talk to elephants in whatever way it happens.

  5. REPLY
    Carolyn Clarke says

    This is so interesting to hear the perspective of someone who has been working around elephants for a long time and is seeing changes in their own attitudes. I think it is very brave of anyone to show their own vulnerability and prior challenges on social media for all the world to see. I feel so happy for Nicole that she is happily embracing her new found insights into elephant emotions and communication ability. I don’t doubt that her openness to learning the “elephant time” culture at GSE will make her a much respected member of the care team. And I’m sure that with these educational insights into her world she will win the hearts and admiration of we supporters of GSE from all over the world who will never get the opportunity to meet her or set foot on Sanctuary land. Thank you Nicole!

  6. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thank you Nicole, I can completely understand you. At first when I used to read GSE posts I thought they were a little ott ( this from a person who’s a Brit and likes to think she also does’t wear her emotions on her sleeve!) I have never learnt as much about elephants as I have from GSE. I listened to a presentation yesterday re elephants in musth (behaviours physical changes, etc) by Friends of Elephants , it was very interesting but the empathising by too many of the speakers were human focused, surprisingly although he was from a zoo the main speaker was the most sympathetic, but still he researched as an academic , and there was so much I didn’t agree with, I’ve learnt too much from GSE and other like minded people and seen a side to elephants or multiple sides so I can never fully get my head around the academia stance. I love Maia btw, thanks for the pic! Good luck and enjoy!

  7. REPLY
    Sheila says

    Thank you for ur kindness IN talking and working with elephants. Lovely pic of Maia

  8. REPLY
    Polly Weber says

    Nicole, where did you actually do your original training , for how long and what was your goal then?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      she worked at another sanctuary for several years as a caregiver. no goal other than to take care of elephants. ☺️

  9. REPLY
    Carey says

    I understand! I admit to thinking GSE were a bit OTT when I first read their reports! (A Brit who hates to think she wears her heart of a sleeve!) Over the years I have learnt more from GSE than from anywhere and I watch the elephants and marvel at the noticing of the smallest signals from GSE of the elephants. I just listened to a presentation about elephants in musth – behaviours, physical changes, by Friends of Elephants. An academic presentation to fellow researchers in the field, Sri Lankans and Indians, and I thought how big the hill to climb to get real elephant centred research and practice. Weirdly the most sympathetic was the American zoo researcher, still a ways to go but different in his approach to those with wild elephant populations who were very focused on HEC. It occurred to me that HEC is discussed as if it begun with elephant encroachment on human crops land – where as to me it begun with humans hunting, killing, and carving up elephant land! It’s on YouTube FYI. Wishing you the very best there, I hope it’s a real eye opener!

  10. REPLY
    Susy says

    Que linda experiencia Nicol, en realidad una más en tu vida, pero cargada, seguramente, de adrenalina y emoción ya que cada lugar es diferente. No dejes de contarnos cada momento que compartas y te comuniques con estos bellos seres a los que amo tanto. Gracias por contarnos sobre la vida en el Santuario.

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