Because of recent discussions on Mara’s health, some questions arose on social media about what it means when elephants who are bonded lose a friend and the mental toll it might take on them after that loss. Of course, we will never know the emotions each individual experiences, we can share what we have observed about elephant behaviors in the past.
Over our years of caring for elephants in the US and in Brazil, we have seen a number of sanctuary residents get sick. There are exceptions, but we often let them go through the natural process of dying. In the past, we have worked with elephants who seem to understand what is happening to them long before they exhibit any physical symptoms of illness. Some elephants appear to encourage those who are close to them to strengthen relationships with other elephants. This transition period might mean subtly stepping away from their friends and leaving them to bond and spend time with others. We have seen this happen multiple times. Of course, this is something we mostly realized in hindsight – but it shows the knowledge and sensitivity that elephants have that we do not. Looking back, we believe we have witnessed that some elephants appear to only find comfort in leaving once their closest friend has truly bonded with another.
Elephants in captivity don’t have natural lives, and they often don’t experience natural deaths. In our experience, elephants who have lived in captivity, without the companionship of other elephants, or have watched other elephants come and go, appear to experience sadness, or at least confusion, with their first experience of loss of a herd member; it’s simply not something they have seen before. After that, they present as having a better understanding of the life cycle and a more natural dying process.
Among our elephants, Rana has experienced loss twice – first with Guida and then with Ramba. Though she was not as close with Guida as with later elephants, she still felt the loss. Rana was very close with Ramba, and we saw the impact Ramba’s passing had on her. These could not have been easy lessons to learn, but it has certainly made Rana one of our kindest herd members; she is a chameleon of sorts, adjusting her behavior and becoming the kind of friend that each fellow elephant needs in a specific situation.
For this reason, she likely has a much better awareness of death than an elephant as inexperienced as Bambi does. We have already seen her communicate with Bambi in some way when Mara was down last month. Rana appeared to have a calming influence on Bambi, who seemed a bit anxious. Rana would come in very close and get face-to-face with Bambi, just standing there. There was surely some communication that we could not perceive, but we ultimately saw Bambi exhibit more relaxed behavior after these moments. Rana may be helping her understand illness, aging, and even death.
We care deeply and worry about all of our elephants; that comes along with accepting responsibility for their wellbeing. But, based on experience, we do not worry that our elephants will be permanently damaged by another’s passing. They will each grieve in their own way, just as we humans do – often better for having been blessed to know these irreplaceable friends. The cycle of life impacts us all.
Photo of Rana
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SALLIE saysApril 21, 2021 at 3:11 pm
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL COMMENTS. I HAVE SEEN LOSSES IN HERDS, AND IT IS AS DEVASTATING EMOTIONALLY FOR ELEPHANTS, AS IT IS FOR HUMANS, TO SEE THE GATHERING AND RESPECT PAID. WE ARE SO SIMILAR IN HEART AND MIND TO OUR LARGE GRAY FRIENDS. THEY CRY AS WELL . . .
Melinda saysApril 21, 2021 at 3:19 pm
Thank you. These wonderful beings are so blessed to finally be at sanctuary.
Beji saysApril 21, 2021 at 3:21 pm
We as humans, surely do not deserve these wondrous elephants. But I’m sure grateful that we have them.
Julie saysApril 21, 2021 at 3:22 pm
Thank you so much for your wisdom and service! I learned a lot from this post and love you and the elephants more than ever! And thank you, Rana, for being you.
Bobi StaySee saysApril 21, 2021 at 3:33 pm
Thank you for this, so beautiful.
Rachel saysApril 21, 2021 at 4:34 pm
I’m not crying but hold on as I get a tissue…..
Lori Hoover saysApril 21, 2021 at 5:18 pm
Rana is a being of such heart and soul, if there is a perfect being in this world, it might just be her.
Wim saysApril 21, 2021 at 5:18 pm
Thank you for this in-depth retrospective analysis.
This explanation means a lot to me. Elephants being giant sensitive creatures they grow in life and share so much emotions. Really believe they are super carers around the clock.
Like all participants in the natural world they feel when the light calls. In the native world there’s a saying we make room for a better person this must be an elephant wisdom. ??❤️
Sara saysApril 21, 2021 at 5:23 pm
They truly are wise souls. We will never understand the depth of their emotion, but it is beautiful to witness.
Bill saysApril 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm
These wonderful creatures are learning how to experience a relative free life, how to interact with others, and all of the facets of life in general. Death being part of life and dealing with that has got to carry its own trauma. When it does eventually occur, you just want to hug them.
Deb Perry saysApril 21, 2021 at 6:03 pm
Your blogs are so beautifully written. All of them, really! The funny ones that make me laugh to the serious ones that almost make me cry. I can feel your love & compassion everytime you write. And you are an amazing teacher.
GOD bless the elephants.
GOD bless you & the sanctuary.
Sara saysApril 21, 2021 at 6:14 pm
The elephants are our teachers and we are really so lucky to learn from them.
Tammy saysApril 21, 2021 at 10:58 pm
Beautifully written…thank you ?
Nishant Bhajaria saysApril 21, 2021 at 11:06 pm
How is Mara doing now?
Sara saysApril 22, 2021 at 10:39 am
Thank you for asking. Since her most recent bout with retaining gas, she seems to be feeling much better and her appetite has improved. She is eating more hay than before, which is great because that is what helps elephants maintain a healthy weight. We were very happy to see that she had gained a small amount of weight during her last weigh in. We know that her gastrointestinal issues will be a concern for the rest of her life, but at the moment she seems happy and appears to feel better than she has since these troubles began a couple of months ago.
Charlotte Hansen saysApril 22, 2021 at 2:41 am
Thank you for this.
Elke Pattyn saysApril 22, 2021 at 3:06 am
My respect, love and admiration for these wonderful animals only grows. Thank you?
SHEILA saysApril 22, 2021 at 3:16 am
THANKS FOR INFO! YES INDEED I REMEMBER A FEW MONTHS AGO DURING MARAS ?VERY ILL TIMES! RANA ?STARTED TO GO OFF ON HER OWN! LEAVING ?BAMBI TO GET CLOSE TO MARA! I THOUGHT RANA WAS NEEDING SPACE AS MARA WAS SO FRANTIC WHEN RANA AND HER WERE JUST TOGETHER FROM WHEN MARA ARRIVED! WHILE THEY GOT VERY LOVELY ?❤️?SISTERPHOOD! I REMEMBER RANA ENCOURAGING BAMBI TO JOIN MARA AND HER AFTER RANA GOT BAMBI TO TONE DOWN THE EXTREME EXUBERANCE AND LOUDNESS! RANA IS TRULY A MATRIARCH ENCOURAGING FRIENDSHIP OF MARA AND BAMBI WHICH FREES HER UP TO RELAX! I HAVE SEEN DOGS AND CATS BE CONCERNED WHEN A FRIEND IS NOT WELL! I BELIEVE HORSES WILL STAY CLOSE TO AN ILL HORSE ALSO! ANIMALS HAVE INSTINCT! THEY CAN SMELL DEATH OR ILLNESS MUCH FASTER THAN HUMANS! I WILL ALWAYS THINK ANMALS ARE MORE INTELLIGENT THAN MANY HUMANS ?
margareta Kjellström saysApril 22, 2021 at 10:40 am
Thank you for all your information! Take care of yourselves also, keep distance ! Too many people dies in Brazil, it is awful.
Sara saysApril 22, 2021 at 10:45 am
Thank you for thinking of us. It is a terrible situation and we are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe.
Tracy Boyle saysApril 22, 2021 at 3:30 pm
As always, thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts
Lane saysApril 22, 2021 at 8:40 pm
Such a meditation on wisdom and gratitude. Thank you.
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