Before we go too far, know that this life is exceptional. To be a part of the lives of elephants is incomparable. Sometimes, it feels like we are living in a dreamscape as the sun rises above the hills to illuminate the valley of elephants. It is incredible, and it is a life that we don’t take for granted.
Many people tell us that they wish they had our jobs, which can occasionally be met with a bit of a cynical chuckle. They will say that they can handle the work and yes, there is a lot of hard, physical work – in the rain, sun, scorching temperatures, inches of mud, and surrounded by insects, insects, and more insects (including the million wasps nests that appear seemingly from nowhere as you are cutting palms for the elephants). In my opinion, that is actually the easy part. When caring for others, food, cleaning, and compassion are important, but the core component is about understanding and listening. And, when working with animals with high intelligence and emotional complexities, there is rarely a path that is straightforward and “right.”
Through each day, there are a lot of ways to be wrong. Rarely do we finish with elephant care and think that it went perfectly. And, we are okay with this; it’s through these imperfections that we continue to grow. When you think there is nothing more for you to learn, it’s time for you to walk away. The challenge for most humans is being okay with not being 100% right. That can be extraordinarily difficult for people, especially for new caregivers. Sometimes, the more critical (and infinitely more difficult) element is learning how to listen to the elephants. Even if we could have done better, when the elephants see that you are listening and trying to understand, they know that you are ready to be their student. This is not to suggest that they think they know more or are better than us, which the latter is undoubtedly true, but it is the same with all healthy relationships: we are learning from our friends and partners, what they need from us and what we can do to be more of what they need.
Communication is difficult within any species, and it is extraordinarily difficult with interspecies relationships. Add the element of 5 decades of isolation and trauma, and this often-intangible concept of listening becomes infinitely more convoluted, nuanced, and individual. On the road to recovery, what an individual needs today is frequently different than what they will need the next day, or even in 10 minutes. For us, this means that what is the right action today may be the wrong action for tomorrow. Ultimately, we need to know that our role is to facilitate recovery by helping the elephants feel safe to express themselves. But, what if we take a wrong step; a moment of not listening, or not being present, or an analysis that missed critical elements they were trying to share with us? And, due to the trauma they’ve endured, some elephants have learned to not be honest with their communications. How do we know what they are sharing is what they really feel?
As a new elephant caregiver, these feelings and questions can be overwhelming. When we feel insecure, we will often overcompensate with a false sense of confidence. We tell ourselves that “we have this,” or we just give them everything that we think that they might want: more food, more love, more anything that we can. But these reactions are also not honest; they are masking our own insecurities. What we feel, based on our journeys with elephants, is that we must be honest and, more importantly, vulnerable. This means finding and learning who you are as an individual, as a caregiver, as a partner, and as a human. We believe that before you can understand another, you must first understand yourself. And just like our experiences with the elephants, it is ok to be wrong about who you thought you were, and it is okay to change. It’s sometimes scary, but it is also humbling and empowering.
The intertwined elements of what make sanctuary impactful are still being unveiled, and we are still learning and we are still growing. One element that we know with certainty, and I think that we can all resonate with, is that when you feel like someone is listening, you feel safe to open your heart and to be vulnerable. And we know that vulnerability is honesty, and with honesty lies trust – and with trust, we are creating free spaces for the elephants to be who they are.
This life is magical, and it is a gift to be a part of, but it’s not easy. Personal growth and finding humility are what most caregivers find the most difficult. It is complicated to be okay with being wrong while, at the same time, knowing that being wrong can cause a traumatized individual to take a step backward and close their door of self-expression. This responsibility, in combination with our personal growth, and the multitude of tangibles such as financial, safety, security, make this life extraordinarily difficult and, at the same time, incomparable.
Rana and Mara enjoying some green grass