What is involved with the management of an elephant sanctuary?

To understand all of the elements that go into sanctuary management, we have to first understand what fabricates the backbone of “sanctuary”. The concept of sanctuary for elephants is not easy to envision; it is not a zoo, it is not a farm, and it is not the wild; in some ways it is a mixture of the best attributes of all of these. The reality is that sanctuary is the only place outside of the wild where elephants don’t have a purpose to serve people. Elephants’ role within a sanctuary is simple- to be themselves, to resonate with the nature of being an elephant. In doing so, they serve to educate about the core truth of elephants, to open hearts and minds, and encourage humans to look past the façade of what we believe elephants to be. I’ve worked with elephants for 25 years and even to this day their true depth of wisdom, knowledge and sensitivity continues to humble me. Elephants are so much more than any of us believe; even those that honor and admire them, generally only know a fraction of the components that unify to encompass all that they truly embody. It is this awareness of elephant complexity that guides us to define sanctuary as much more than simply a physical location.

By nature, elephants are incredibly intelligent, intensely social, emotionally complex, and migratory beings. To provide elephants with a place of respect, trust, and healing, sanctuary has to be designed to accommodate these inherent traits. But it is also vital to factor in the detrimental impact that captivity has placed on their physical and psychological health. While the concept of sanctuary revolves around expansive natural space, it is equally a state of being and mind, with humans playing a pivotal role. Caregivers must be highly sensitive to the constantly evolving needs of each elephant as they transition through multiple stages of healing and recovery. We would love nothing more than to open the doors of sanctuary, then sit back and watch elephants thrive in nature, but captivity has caused a tremendous amount of harm to the captive elephants that will call sanctuary home. As a result, humans, as the cause of the damage, must also aid in their recovery.

There are many times that people, in particular those that are opposed to sending their elephants to sanctuary, have suggested that they are concerned elephants cannot receive proper veterinary care within an expansive habitat. This claim is based on the tremendous freedoms that elephants are offered in Sanctuary versus in zoos and circuses where the elephants are literally a finger’s length away at any moment. Fortunately, this assumption is steeped with misconceptions. The truth is that there is a tremendous amount of caregiver involvement in the daily lives, health care, and emotional recovery of sanctuary residents.

On a simple level, at least three times a day, every day, no matter where the elephants are, supplemental meals of grains, produce, nutritional supplements, and hay (depending on the growing season) are brought out to them. During these visits, any needed medical treatments or procedures can also be carried out. Even in vast spaces, an elephant can be brought to a fence-line or a protective space to be cared for, especially if you chose the right food reward to encourage their cooperation. These regular feedings play an important role in elephant care at sanctuary. Not only do they allow caregivers a time to check on the health and comfort of the elephant, but they also continually strengthen the relationship between caregiver and elephant. Reinforcing to the elephants that someone is always there to help and watch over them, while respecting their space and freedoms at the same time.

A great aspect of sanctuary is the ability for the caregivers and elephants to adapt to ever changing situations. Training sessions or medical treatments can be conducted along the many miles of fence lines or at training walls set up at remote stations, in the barn, or just about anywhere the need exists. Sanctuary design and construction is built with the mindset of ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’ and veterinary care is a major component of this If we have a particularly ill elephant, the facility is designed so we can isolate them (and their most kindred companions) to a region that is closer to the barns or care centers. This space still offers room to roam while increasing the staff’s ability to carefully monitor and treat the elephant throughout the day. If elephants require more intensive oversight, caregivers can switch on and off, providing 24-hour care.

From our experience, when elephants are ill enough to need intensive care, most will come to where they know we can provide the best care for their needs. There are times that we do have to override their judgment and also times when their veterinary needs dictate that some of their usual freedoms will need to be taken away temporarily. Veterinary care is just as much a part of sanctuary life as it is with any other captive elephant care facility. The main difference is that many of the ailments treated in zoos and circuses heal within sanctuary life, reducing the intensity and necessity for daily intrusion.

Training sessions serve a purpose to aid in providing long-term healthcare, they are not, nor should they be, considered “enrichment,” as they have been referred to in some zoological facilities. A proper dynamic environment serves the purpose of enrichment, not human imposed behaviors. If a training session is to fill a void, there is not the same degree of purpose compared to training with the sole motivation to provide better care. When caregivers have a deeper understanding of elephants’ intelligence, and elephants have increased mental aptitude because of the dynamic environment, sanctuary operations are able to establish a better balance of the time spent allowing elephants to be elephants and the training necessary for medical needs. Training sessions do not dominate the schedule, nor do behaviors need to be repeated with great frequency for the elephants to retain them…they are elephants! We all know that they have long memories and intelligence beyond our ability to define, yet many times in captivity they are treated as though a rigorous training schedule is necessary for them to remember a learned behavior. When you honor the nature of an elephant, you can achieve greater results in a shorter period of time. Mutual respect goes a long way to attaining everyone’s objectives.

Sanctuaries have another benefit when it comes to providing proper care; elephants are more fulfilled within sanctuary life. They are offered diverse stimulations that activate greater regions of their minds. They also have increased autonomy, which allows them to feel more secure and re-build their trust level.   With elephants that reside in a more sterile environment, they too become somewhat sterile; elephants become as dynamic as the world in which they live. Sanctuary life allows elephants to expose more of themselves; they learn to be more open, communicative, and vulnerable. Unfortunately, elephants are taught throughout their life that communicating their emotions is a negative thing; crooked glances, pulling away from a behavior, and hesitation on a command, are all things that invoke correction and sometimes punishment by trainers and keepers. Many times, this is the elephant’s only way to let their handler know they are uncomfortable with a situation. When their ability to communicate their discomfort is taken away, a volatile circumstance is created where an elephant seemingly goes from calm to lashing out without warning. At sanctuary, these behaviors and subtle communications are encouraged; we try to show them that when they communicate not only is someone listening, but also what they are trying to communicate matters. This communication is fundamental to build trust between elephant and caregiver while making human/elephant interactions safer. An elephant’s first steps, as they leave their old facility and life behind, marks the beginning of this continually evolving process.

Each new elephants goes through a variety of stages of recovery, at different rates and with different needs. There are some that for a time may need less space to feel comfortable, some need more time to learn how to interact with and trust other elephants and may rely more on caregivers, and there are other new arrivals that just jump in fully embracing all that sanctuary offers. These early days are a pivotal period for the growth of the elephants and for us as caregivers, to better understand the nature of each individual, their sensitivities, and their comforts. For this to occur, the ultimate goal has to be kept in the front of our minds: we are here to offer them a chance to live as close to nature as captivity will allow, they need to learn to be an elephant. Yet elephants are grossly injured and restricted by their years in captivity and they sometimes need to “lean on” us as they recover; our role as caregiver and nurturer has to be balanced with that of silent observer so they can learn to stand on their own.

The degree of growth that we’ve discussed can be hard to comprehend; 20 years ago the growth that we observed exceeded what we believed sanctuary could offer captive elephants. At sanctuary, caregivers are able to learn more about elephants as an individual because it is an environment that is designed to encourage growth though a greater spectrum of life’s experiences. The resident elephants demonstrate and expose a more dynamic being, they clearly show appreciation, they seek help when they are confused or not feeling well, they play with less inhibitions and they move with a different grace and intention, through all of this, caregivers see them in a vastly different manner. In turn we treat them accordingly, with a higher respect and greater awareness of their full potential.

All of the elements we have touched on, caretakers with a more thorough comprehension of elephants, increased comfort and trust by the elephants, autonomy and respect, create an environment that promotes an increased level of care.   Caregivers and elephants develop and accept the balance of needs and desires. Sanctuary offers the best of all worlds, an environment that stimulates growth and healing, a facility that offers a wide array of solutions to changing scenarios, elephants that develop increased trust and communications, and a dynamic world that improves the knowledge, sensitivity, and awareness of everyone involved, both humans and elephants.








  1. REPLY
    Michele Franko, Elephant Caregiver @ PAWS says

    Bravo, Kat, completely spot on. You so poignantly describe and exemplify true Sanctuary philosophy and practice. Coming from a trauma recovery approach as a researcher for the Kerulos Center, I have been conscious of the practices, such as listening and inclusion, embedded in elephantness, compassion and empathy. For the involuntary captive elephants throughout the world, I sleep a little better knowing you and Scott have staked a claim in South America. Looking forward to your discussion, and staying in touch with your progress.
    Contented rumbles to you all,
    Michele Franko

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