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