My first experience with elephants at a zoo

There is a part of me that feels blessed at never having seen an elephant in a zoo or circus, but since working with elephants, there has always been a part of me that thought the naivety and safeness of that fact wasn’t a positive thing.

In my lifetime, I have only visited a single zoo that housed elephants. That was the Bronx Zoo, and the day I went, the elephants weren’t out on exhibit. If memory serves me, I have never been to a circus with performing animals, so I have never been in the same space with an elephant, except for in a sanctuary setting. What I have experienced personally is the effect that captivity can have on an elephant. I have seen the scared and empty eyes, I have been on the receiving end of a defensiveness that is the result of decades of mistreatment, and I have witnessed elephants that no longer have the ability to think for themselves or solve the simplest obstacle due to a lifetime of a lack of mental stimulation. But I have also seen the other side of things. I have watched the utter selflessness that elephants show each other; they would truly give up anything, even sacrifice themselves, to care for another member of the herd. I have watched the re-awakening that occurs, when an elephant realizes they are safe and encouraged to express themselves, when they know they are truly able to begin to be themselves again and rediscover who that is. With this new project, one of the things we decided we needed to do was visit as many captive elephants in Brazil as we could, and I was prepared for the worst.

The first zoo we visited was a pleasant surprise. The space was too small, but it was dirt (not cement) and there was grass and mud wallows and there wasn’t a lone elephant in the enclosure, but two. Ok, not horrible so far. The female rumbled softly when the male approached, he appeared to be gentle with her, neither stereotyped while we were there, fresh cut greens were brought to them, they had nice hay, and staff that had worked with elephants for over a decade. But I knew this wouldn’t be the normal for our trip, but maybe just a nice way to break the ice.

The second zoo was what I had been anticipating. There were two elephants, but they were housed separately. One elephant was fat and otherwise healthy looking. She spent the time we were there, grazing throughout her exhibit, bathing herself from the water in her pool, and retrieving to the shade of her living quarters when she wanted a break from the sun. The other elephant was the antithesis of this. She was closed in a little space, barely recognizable as an elephant from where the public stood. There was a dark shadow, pressed into the wall of the corner of her enclosure: that was the elephant. Immediately my heart dropped, and thoughts of her being lost and withdrawn, closing herself off to life entirely, all go running through my head. I try to catch glimpses of her as she slowly sways back and forth, and parts of her are illuminated by the sun peaking into her space. She looks like she is possibly on the thin side but none of us are sure. So we continue to watch her, attempt to get pictures, but nothing can venture into the dark where she stays, not even the lens of a camera. Finally she decides to cross over to the other side of her shelter and her body is illuminated by the bright summer sun. You briefly glimpse her shoulder blades, her spine lacking in any muscle and her pelvic bones, all of which you should not be able to see in a healthy elephant. Into the other corner she goes, head pressed once again, after a few minutes, beginning to sway. Her face never came into view, it was hung too low to leave the shadows. Now, not only am I heartbroken for the existence of what her daily life entails, but I begin to become concerned for her health- is she sick or is she a “bad” elephant and not treated the same as the elephant next door? An hour passes and we are still only allowed glimpses that we manage to get from certain angles, walking around all of the visitor space, standing on ledges and planters, just trying to get more of a view of who she is. Half an hour later, we get what we were willing to sit for hours for, she actually comes to the center of her shelter, lifts her head up, and places her trunk on the bars. She’s so beautiful and tragically sad. Her face is sunken in and dirty, you can see the bones of her skull, and her eyes look pleading. I know there are going to be those who think this is anthropomorphism, and they can think what they want, I am just saying what I saw and what my years of elephant experience has taught me. I won’t say she looked “sad”, and her eyes weren’t totally empty, she is still there hanging onto some shred of hope for something. Maybe it’s just to be let into her outer enclosure to graze, maybe there is a keeper that truly cares for her, or maybe she has to hope there is something else, in order to make it through another day. That I don’t know, but I do believe she hasn’t given up just yet. The moment only lasted 30 seconds, she put her trunk up, put her head over, looked around, then went right back into her corner. That time was a blip in the big scheme of things, a fraction of a minute, but one that changed me forever. It made me both upset and happy at the same time that we decided to visit with elephants in Brazil. It hurts my heart to think about her as I write this, I literally have a heavy feeling in my chest, and as I continue to write, my eyes begin to tear up. Walking away from her was excruciating, I had to turn back to her several times, thinking in my head and hoping she somehow heard me, that she was loved, that there were people out there that don’t even know her but care for her. That those people don’t care if she’s a “bad” elephant, or an “aggressive” elephant, or more likely a misunderstood elephant, they love her for who she is. That we are trying to create a place that is nothing like what she has known for her adult life, and that I promised not to forget her and hoped to return to her and give her the life she deserves, that she has reason to hope, and although it is somewhat selfish, that she should try to hold on. And with that, we all left her, in her small space, leaning in her corner, swaying her days away. Elephants like her are not only the reason alternatives are needed, but it is why we personally feel like we have to do this, and we will do this, no matter what it takes. I can still, very clearly remember her face, and will keep it on the desktop of my computer at home as both a reminder of her life and the promise that I made to her as we all walked away. It goes back to the saying that “Saving one animal will not save the world…but surely, for that one animal the world will change forever”. Even if we only had the ability to change just this one life, it would all be worth it. She not only deserves it, but she truly needs it.


  1. REPLY
    Debra says

    It just sucks. YOU are the promise of improved lives for them. Together we can do this. Stay safe.

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