Autonomy is an essential aspect of sanctuary. Giving elephants the ability to make their own decisions – even something as simple as choosing to stand in the sun or the shade is a new experience for many captive elephants. Each elephant has different preferences, and it is both fascinating and educational to witness them learn what they want and need.
We try to minimize unnecessary interactions to ensure that the elephants fully embrace their autonomy here. Our mere presence can be a distraction from their more natural lives. They associate their care team with food and attention, which means they often stop their instinctive behaviors when we approach. It’s hard for them to express themselves and feel free to live their lives as they choose with constant outside interference.
This lack of in-person supervision doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention or know what goes on in their days. With the habitat in the valley and the office on the hill, we can hear almost anything. Our camera system allows us to check in unobtrusively; we know their routines, and are a short 4-wheeler ride away if anything sounds out of the ordinary.
One of our favorite recent routines to observe from afar is a mid-afternoon party. Bambi will decide to walk away from Mara. She won’t go far. Usually, she’s wandered across a pasture to be near Rana or to get a drink. Mara will suddenly decide that she needs her friend back and will send out a Mara squeak. The squeak may set off a chain of events resulting in Bambi roaring and running full speed to Mara. When we check the cameras, we will often see Mara near the pond, just standing there innocently. When we pan the camera slightly, we see Bambi flying toward her friend.
Once they reunite, they are usually trumpeting. If they are on camera, we see ear flapping, tails sticking out, and spinning. It can happen multiple times a week or a couple of times a day. It’s so routine that we are pretty sure what we’re going to see when we check, but still look, just in case. It’s always charming to us – and apparently hasn’t lost its luster to them yet either.
Photo of Mara (foreground) and Bambi (background)