Lady’s Steps of Hopes Part IV: The Actual Condition of Lady’s Feet

Elephant feet are nuanced and complicated and still a leading cause of death for captive elephants. Lady’s feet aren’t just uncomfortable or an inconvenience, they have defined part of her life. As much as we would like to go in and ‘fix’ everything, we can’t do that safely. Now that she is allowing foot trimming, each trim and file are interconnected to the rest of that foot, her other feet, her overall stance, and her well-being. Doing too much at once can destroy the integrity of the foot, put too much pressure on a different foot, and, quite simply, make things worse. Elephants have been euthanized for these very overzealous actions. We will try our best to explain what and why is being done. It’s not easy, but we know it is part of understanding Lady’s struggles and the toll captivity can take on an elephant’s life. Here is a post we wrote that talks about some foot basics, so today’s post doesn’t turn into a book.

For those who watched our last live feed, we mentioned that Lady started to show discomfort in her front right foot. It was the impetus for not continuing with having her share a yard with Rana. Her foot was not only uncomfortable, but because she has such a strong flight response, it was making her incredibly insecure when in the same space as another elephant. The last thing we want to do is cause negative interactions, so we listened to what she was showing us and tried to push forward with training to be able to trim her feet. Now that we have been able to work on her feet for about two weeks, we understand more about their condition.

Her front feet are significantly worse than her back feet. Both have overgrown pads, nails, and cuticles. Although untrimmed cuticles may sound very superficial, it is often where bacteria are introduced and able to travel deep within the foot. Lady’s front nails are so overgrown they grow to the side, causing pressure and an uneven gait. But the bottom of the feet is where it can get scary. Layers of untrimmed pads trap dung, bacteria, and can coverup old abscesses (both active and inactive.) Pads should be firm, but Lady’s are spongy and porous- which aids in retaining bacteria and makes them more difficult to trim. Instead of easily cutting away, they tend to compress and move with the knife. While caring for healthy feet is relatively painless, trimming Lady’s feet causes a level of discomfort due to their current condition, even with the sharpest tools. It’s part of what is so impressive with how cooperative and stoic she is being.

On a positive note, as we trim away pad, we have not yet uncovered our worst fears. She has some soft spots, but for now, they are all reasonable. Her grooves are incredibly deep and interconnected, and we are widening those, but it’s slow going. One of the elephants in TN had horrific feet. As her pads were trimmed, layers of inactive abscesses were uncovered, filled with dried pus. But it wasn’t until her necropsy that digging further revealed a giant pocket, further up. It’s impossible to know what you will uncover, so although Lady’s feet are far from healthy, we can still feel good about what we are finding up until now.

With every session, we have to ensure that we are not making the pad uneven or causing pressure on a different part of the foot that will impact her stance. Lady’s pads are incredibly overgrown to the inside of her front feet, so much that her feet hang over the pad on the outside, and she stands bow-legged. That has to be corrected slowly, not to cause discomfort to her joints. Her body has been like this for many years; an overnight fix wouldn’t be a positive thing. She walks very stiffly on her left front leg (chronic, not new), which is most likely a result of having to shift her weight off of her right front foot due to pain. We are unsure of exactly what is going on with her right front foot that is causing her to focus on it more; she will blow dirt on it and lift it on occasion. But we can’t trim the nails to their appropriate length without putting more pressure on what is already causing her discomfort. We are not trimming for appearance. We are trimming to restore their health- slow and steady.

All of that being said, what has been done is already making a difference. We had grown accustomed to Lady’s slow and methodical steps, but now she is a bit of a wild child. For the past few days, her speed has picked up significantly, and we find ourselves laughing with her at her new level of spunk. Our hope is that this is due to increased comfort, but there is no definitive way to know. We have taken thermal images prior to trimming and will take comparative photos in a couple of weeks. Fairly soon, we will give Lady a break from her trimming, allow her pads to harden, making it possible to continue working on her nails and making some more adjustments.

As we have stated before, her feet will need lifelong care and will probably never be ‘normal.’ She most likely suffers from chronic osteomyelitis (no cure) but can only be diagnosed through radiographs. But, as these past two weeks have shown, we can bring her a level of comfort that she hasn’t known in years. And our bigger hope is that if she feels more secure physically, it will allow her to feel more secure emotionally. Because although she has taken a break from sharing a yard with Rana, elephant family is still one of the most important things in her life.

Next and last foot post (for now), we will talk about her care regimen.

April 27, 2020




  1. REPLY
    Heidi says

    So heartbreaking. Thank you for taking such good care of Lady.

  2. REPLY
    Carol says

    Wow…an ordeal for patient as well as caretaker. Just praying there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sending positivity. ???

  3. REPLY
    Kelejan says

    I would guess that nearly 100% of elephants in captivity, by the time they are mature, will have foot problems that will cause them to live in continual pain. Just imagine your own feet never having proper care and know that elephants are on their feet and that they carry a ton of weight. Thank you for educating us, you are such wonderful people and I wish there were more of you.
    Was it Tina in TN that had terrible feet and died less than a year after she reached Sanctuary? That was the first elephant I followed and her death was so sad and she could have lived many more years if her feet had been looked after.

    • REPLY
      EleComposer says

      Yes, you are correct about Tina. Very sad.

  4. REPLY
    Jean McDermott says

    Thank you for helping her. Prayers that her feet will slowly improve as much as possible with all your loving and attentive care. Bless you for helping these beauties.

  5. REPLY
    Bernadette Rey says

    Are there any meds that could help ease her discomfort. Perhaps even herbal or ‘natural’

    • REPLY
      EleComposer says

      As mentioned in the post, our next blog post on Lady will address her care regimen and the steps we are taking. Stay tuned!

  6. REPLY
    Patricia says

    Oh, Lady, what a good girl you are. I am so grateful that you are now in such a loving caring place with Kat & Scott and your ele sisters. My heart aches for the years of pain. My heart lightens with every bit of pain relieved. Angel girl. xoxoxo

  7. REPLY
    Terry Feleppa says

    What care you guys take! What neglect she has endured! She is exactly where she needs to be for her treatments! No easy task from the post I just read. I personally have used DMSO on my feet from a very deep planters warts to abscesses and unusual skin growths. It has worked miracles for me. Here, in the U S. the FDA basically outlawed it so you can only buy it in a feed store. No doubt it was banned because it works so well! I even knew a Veterinarian who took it internally and he lived to well into his 90’s!

  8. REPLY
    carey says

    Just to say thank you for teaching us about Lady’s feet, what you have written – all the different issues it brings up, is really interesting, so many levels as well as the physical. Stoic is right word for these wonderful animals. Thank you !

  9. REPLY
    Rosie P says

    Hopefully, Lady is finding some relief as a result of all the hard work you are doing. I cannot bear to think of anyone in pain, human animal or non-human animal. It is very time consuming but you have the knowledge, the empathy and the patience to carry it through. The reward is seeing slight improvements in Lady over time.
    You have already made great steps and I am certain all of us are overjoyed. Lady will always have bad feet but improvement is what we can hope for.
    The delight I felt when seeing the photo of Lady presenting her front foot….oh, my. I couldn’t have wished for anything more at that point!
    We humans have a lot to answer for. Thank goodness there are people in this world who care very much about our amazing animal kingdom. Thank you all so very much. XXXXXXX

  10. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman Eaton says

    We can only imagine the ongoing pain she has suffered with each step. Combined with her tremendous weight, abuse and negligence, I’m surprised she is not mean spirited and unmanageable. Bless her heart. It is painful to think of what captive elephants suffer at the hands of humans. So I am ever thankful for GSE, and all elephant sanctuaries that provide love, medical care and comfort to these beautiful, sensitive elephants.

  11. REPLY
    Dr Tracey Reed B.V.M.S. says

    I am a veterinarian that has a great interest in horse hoof welfare. I realise than an Ellies foot and a horses hoof are different morphologically. But they also have similarities. Both are in contact with the ground. Both can become overgrown and diseased. When presented with a diseased horse hoof a light trim to expose fresh tissue and then a hoof soak in Activated Chlorine Dioxide will clean up the current infections exposed by the trim. Regular trims and soaks continue until healing is acheived. Thereafter, a solution in a hand bottle is spritzed onto the sole surface at each daily hoof picking and examination.
    Chlorine Dioxide is an extremely safe disinfectant, that has been used by the medical, veterinary and food preparation industries for many decades. It can be bought in bulk liquid form but is also available in tablet form, to purify water to make it potable for human/animal consumption.
    It may be a viable adjuct to Lady’s foot treatments.
    Well done with her improvements to date 🙂

    • REPLY
      EleComposer says

      Thanks so much for sharing your note and experiences – and all that you are doing for the horses. One of the treatments we use is a product called ‘white lightening’ which contains chlorine dioxide.

    • REPLY
      Dr Tracey Reed B.V.M.S. says

      Glad to see I’m preaching to the converted with your current use of White Lightning (=activated chlorine dioxide). I wish you continued success.

  12. REPLY
    Ann-Marie Jacobs-Brown says

    Poor, poor Lady. Her suffering must have been immense – and for what purpose? To do unnatural acts in a circus for the entertainment of human beings! What an abomination for the most intelligent, most majestic and most forgiving beings on earth. Your reports on her treatment and how she is beginning to show her true personality are really just wonderful. I so hope that you will be able to make her feel more comfortable. Chronic pain, for any species, is exhausting. And I hope against hope that in time, her feet will heal and she will feel confident enough to form close bonds with the other elephants. Then she will be as happy as any captive elephant can be. Thank you so much for everything you are doing for these beloved animals. It is just the most heart-warming (and enlightening) thing to read your reports.

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