When Bambi arrived in September, Maia was the first elephant she met up close. As we shared then, it wasn’t a perfect experience. Bambi wasn’t well socialized and approached Maia head on while Maia was eating. Maia didn’t appreciate it and, after giving Bambi a nudge, ignored her.
In the last few months, Bambi has grown tremendously, especially regarding her sensitivity to other elephants’ moods. She seems to have learned that if something is okay today, it may not be okay tomorrow. Elephants have a very complex social structure. That can be a lot of adjustment and learning for elephants who has been alone for decades. Bambi has been doing very well and has been ready to be reintroduced to Maia for a while now. However, we delayed it due to prioritizing mending her relationship with Mara. With that relationship now on solid ground, we felt ready to try Maia and Bambi together again. Of course, with Bambi sharing space with Mara and Rana full-time, the two couldn’t be reintroduced alone. Maia already knows Mara and Rana.
Our decision to introduce new elephants is always on a spectrum. There isn’t an “if this, then that” formula. We rely on decades of experience to make the best decisions we can based on what we observe. From Bambi’s history, we know she can be both passive and aggressive. When she feels threatened, she runs away rather than fight. While Maia has a huge personality that can be intimidating, we have seen Maia learn a lot about adjusting her behavior for others over the past few months.
With all this in mind, we recently had Maia share space with the three together for the first time. Bambi, Rana, and Mara were near the 4B water trough, and Maia was in Yard 5. The habitat here is quite large, so they couldn’t even see each other when we initially opened the gate. Scott stayed near, working on a project, so he could be present when (or if) Maia came upon the three. As he worked by the 4B trough, Scott kept an eye on Middle Road, the main elephant (and 4-wheeler) path through Yard 4. He heard Mara vocalize near the water trough and was surprised to see the four elephants in the same area. Maia approached them from the back way and popped up from by the lollipop tree.
Scott saw Maia utterly still and standing between Rana and Bambi. Mara was a little bit away from Bambi and Rana, near the mud wallow. Maia seemed a little unsettled. Scott observed quietly for a few minutes without bringing attention to himself. Elephants generally don’t need humans in these sorts of situations. Part of elephant learning and growth is figuring out how to navigate situations like this for themselves. Bambi lifted her head and started to put her trunk over Maia. It wasn’t an aggressive or dominant gesture; it seemed like a passive hello gesture. As Bambi began doing this, she stopped herself and lowered her trunk without touching Maia. Rana was on the other side, being very light, and touched Maia a little bit. Those two have known each other for years now and have a very comfortable relationship.
Mara vocalized, and, as usual, Bambi quickly ran over to Mara to see and check on her friend. Once Bambi left, Maia walked away in a purposeful manner.
As she walked away, the others seemed light and comfortable. A few minutes later, Maia started walking quickly down the fence away from them. Once she was about twenty meters away, she paused briefly before rapidly leaving the area entirely.
Leaving like this is atypical of Maia, who is generally in more of a dominant role and usually presents a persona of being “in charge” of most situations. Along with Guida, she was the first resident of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. Still, we know that her boisterous, powerful presence hides her lack of confidence at times. Despite her bulldozer reputation, she’s quite possibly our most sensitive elephant here. While we have never observed Maia giving more than a nudge here and there, she has a background of aggression. Our experience is that some aggressive elephants hide a significant lack of confidence. They seem to use aggression as a shield to protect them from their own insecurity – like a childhood bully; insecure elephants may want to hurt others before others can hurt them. The other three – Mara, Bambi, and Rana – are in a great place in terms of their relationship. Maia may not have expected to see them together with such a strong bond, and it may have caught her off guard or intimidated her. In many ways, Bambi is an entirely different elephant than the one Maia met several months ago. Bambi is much more secure and has taken on a bit of a protective role with Mara. Maia may have been feeling vulnerable.
We know it’s easy for us, as humans, to feel sympathy for Maia in this sort of situation, but this interaction wasn’t a negative one. She wasn’t terrified or scared; she just didn’t react as we expected her to and she may not have even expected this reaction in herself. It’s important to remember that part of living life is experiencing the negative as well as the positive. During her lifetime in a circus and on chains, Maia lost so many years of her life. We can’t create an environment for them to be as free as possible and allow them to live their lives as close to wild as possible while simultaneously shielding them from the full spectrum of emotions that life has to offer. Challenges are where real growth happens.
While Maia has been here the longest, this moment with Mara, Rana, and Bambi was her first real exposure to herd dynamics that she wasn’t already involved in. We have more elephants coming in the future, and new elephants continually change and challenge existing dynamics. Instances such as this will only prepare Maia for future arrivals and help her be a better member of the herd in the future.
Scott followed Maia down the fence line. In tomorrow’s post, we will talk about Maia’s response after her encounter with the others. On Thursday (Yes, this is a three-part post!), we will share what happened when the three met up again later that day.
Photo of (left to right) Rana, Maia, Bambi, and Mara.