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Maia’s Unexpected Excitement Part 2: The Story Continues

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, Maia encountered Bambi, Mara, and Rana in the habitat and didn’t react as expected.

After Maia took off down the fence, Scott followed her on the 4-wheeler. As wild animals, captive elephants retain a “flight or fight” reaction, and Maia seemed to be experiencing a “flight” moment. Because she was in no actual danger, Scott wanted to encourage her to stop and think before continuing to respond entirely on instinct. Once Scott caught up with her and got her attention, he gave her some snacks along the fence. Just like with humans, eating can be very comforting to elephants, and it causes them to pause.

As we mentioned yesterday, despite her big persona, Maia is a little insecure at times and is possibly our most sensitive elephant. As she walked off, we knew she was fine, but we were concerned about her emotions. Scott spent some time near her while she settled down and started eating her hay.

Maia’s food was inside the fence – Scott tossed it through the fencing to give her space if she wanted it. She walked past her hay to Scott, looking for affection.  She leaned into the fence, for a comforting touch while she ate. (It’s Maia – so food came first!) Scott held the end of her trunk and scratched her ear.

Because we are a protected contact facility, we are frequently asked if we are affectionate with the elephants. Our standard response is that we provide affection when the elephants solicit it, but they aren’t always interested in it. They generally would rather spend time with their herd mates than their humans, which we prefer – they are here to be elephants, after all.

Something that we like about protected contact is that it ensures interactions are on the elephant’s terms. Through their lifetimes of captivity, elephants are conditioned to accept human touch. They frequently have people approach and touch them without paying attention to their signals or needs, so they learn to tolerate unwanted touching. For many elephants, this learned behavior begins when humans use dominance-based control methods on them at a very young age. If the elephant pulls away from a stranger touching them, a bullhook brings them back. Even under different styles of management, this learned behavior often remains. They learn to tolerate unwanted touch, not only to avoid punishment but to earn food rewards.

When you switch to protected contact management, the decision to be touched is truly up to the elephant. With Maia’s food entirely inside the fence, she could have stayed a few steps away. Because she approached the fence despite having food in her space, Scott knew that she wanted to be close in that moment. When humans are in their space all the time, it’s harder to tell what the elephant actually wants, especially since they are conditioned over decades not to step away when approached. It was indeed her choice – and her desire – to be touched and reassured by Scott. Once she felt sufficiently comforted, she stepped back, and the encounter ended.

Our time working with elephants in both free-contact and protected-contact scenarios has helped us see how working through a barrier can deepen our relationship with the elephants. The humans here love and adore each resident elephant, but it’s their home first. We are the guests, and they are allowed to make their choices; everything – including whether or not they are touched – is on their terms.

After a bit of affection from Scott, Maia seemed tired, but she also seemed lighter in spirit. She didn’t appear overly concerned by her recent encounter and was happy to settle down and eat some snacks. After she finished eating, she wandered off into the bushes.

She ended up meeting with Mara, Rana, and Bambi a few hours later, and we will share that in tomorrow’s post, the third post in this series.

Photo of Maia taken along the fence after she solicited affection from Scott.

Comments(19)

  1. REPLY
    Nancy Shaw says

    ( : !

  2. REPLY
    Kelejan says

    I bet there is no other group of people who take care of their elephants completely on the elephants’ own terms. You are certainly going to end up with a wonderful herd of elephants.

    It will of course take years , all the time that new elephants are joining the herd. The only sad thing is that none of them will have babies as this is a sanctuary for elderly elephants to give them a taste of what they have missed.

  3. REPLY
    Debbie Sides says

    I love that they have freedom of choice after decades of such a sad existence. This place is paradise and more residents to come!

  4. REPLY
    Renee' Killian-Zeiger says

    Look at that hairy big girl! Bless!

  5. REPLY
    John says

    I have a strong feeling that all the elephants love all of you, in their own elephant way.

  6. REPLY
    Julie says

    So fascinating! I love that you all are so intuitive about the needs of these girls. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s installment.

  7. REPLY
    Beji says

    We’ll get by with a little help from our friends… Another lovely encounter

  8. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman Eaton says

    Such a sweetheart Maia is. Just needing a tender touch and word of encouragement that all is ok. Allowing total and complete freedom of choice and understanding their emotional needs is so wonderful for these precious girls. 🐘♥️

  9. REPLY
    Tammy says

    Wow so very heartwarming, thank you 😘🐘💞

  10. REPLY
    bo says

    thanks for episode nr 2 of this elephant soap/series!
    again, so interesting.

    was wondering, how do most elephants at the sanctuary respond to thunderstorms, the thunderstorms that are very loud and intense, do they show signs of fear or are they being nervous?
    often dogs (but perhaps they often react and behave scared because of the behaviour of their owners…) are very scared during thunderstorms.
    not that i speak out of experience, no, no, not at all … 🙂

    thanks again!

    • REPLY
      sara says

      Our girls respond to thunderstorms pretty much the same way they do to rain – anywhere from indifferent to delighted. They are often happy about the rain, and thunderstorms do not seem to bother them. We have worked with elephants in the past who have been unfazed by (or slept through) tornadoes. So no, they’ve never really shown any sign of nervousness.

  11. REPLY
    Patricia says

    Just so heartwarming and wonderful. Love and blessings to all beings at ESB. Such a wonderful antidote to the cruelty we hear about all too much. You guys are the best counterexample. Hold a trunk for me if you can.

  12. REPLY
    Terry Feleppa says

    Her sensitivity and compassion is so endearing!!!❤

  13. REPLY
    Lori Hoover says

    The comfort and reassurance that Scott offered Maia is apparent in this beautiful photograph of her. It is truly beyond words, the look on her face and in her eyes. Thank you for what you do for her, for all of them. I am hopeful our big, bold, but sensitive girl finds her place with the ellies, old and new.

  14. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    Ah, Ms Fuzzy! She seems more “multi-layered” than some of the others ❤️

  15. REPLY
    Sallie says

    The Amazing Miss Maia . . . She has quite a head on her shoulders! I LOVE the relationship between Scott and Miss Sensitive, he really IS the new “Elephant Whisperer” with a HUGE understanding heart. Thank you Scott, for being who you are . . . I believe your elephants feel the same way . . .

  16. REPLY
    Carey says

    Heart warming part 2, the explanation of how captive elephants are forced to accept undesired human touch is more food for thought. I was looking at a BANKSY site on fb that features his and other artists street art and sadly discovered one that featured a live Asian elephant, started quite a conversation when I said that I liked the concept but wish he’d had a VR elephant, some “got it” some didn’t but glad I raised the subject.

  17. REPLY
    Marcia says

    This post was awhile ago, but I still have a question… Could it be that Maia was jealous in some way about the other three’s bonding, even though she chooses not to want to truly bond within their group herself? Seeking comfort from Scott showed she was in need of some sort of emotional connection. What is the sanctuary’s take on Maia’s behavior?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      We’re not seeing any signs of jealousy from Maia, it is definitely reading more like she is uncomfortable and unsure of being around the three. We have given her time alone with just Rana, since she is really the only one of the three that she had bonded with, but even then, she’s not staying very close to her or acting like she is very excited to be spending time with her.

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