As part of the Sanctuary Memory series, Kat shares the story of Lady’s first foot soak. When Lady arrived, there was a great unknown about how she would respond to humans in general, let alone to medical care. She had a history of showing aggression and, though we knew her emotional pain would begin to heal in time, there was no option to delay treating her feet. It was critical to move forward as soon as possible.
When an elephant arrives at sanctuary, they have sometimes faced decades of abuse and neglect at the hands of humans. As a result, they may have negative associations with any interactions with the people around them. In some cases like Bambi’s, her mental health was more pressing than her physical issues – so we allowed her to begin the process of emotional healing through developing relationships before we moved on to the medical element of treatment; it just wasn’t as immediate a concern as her mental health.
With Lady, there was no doubt that her medical issues were pressing and we could not delay in beginning to treat her feet, which were in horrific condition. After 40 years in captivity, she felt that the only way she could communicate was through physically venting her fear as anger. Kat remembers, “For us, it wasn’t a concern that she was aggressive. The concern was that she really didn’t trust and she really didn’t know how to communicate her discomfort. I would say she lashed out at the drop of a hat, but most of the time it was faster than that.” That type of reaction happens when elephants aren’t used to being listened to. They start out trying to communicate in normal ways, but when they aren’t heard, they try other ways to attempt to get their point across. This isn’t abnormal, but Lady seemed particularly attached to this defense mechanism.
“We knew we had to take care of her feet as soon as we could because they were in such a tragic state,” Kat remembers. “Her feet were so swollen; her ankles were so swollen. She had almost no delineation between her knee and the bottom of her foot and it was clearly painful.” In this instance, there is a need to push a little bit more than you normally would. We wanted to start with foot soaks, but there is always a concern that elephants who are new to sanctuary might not want to be closed into small spaces. While the medical chute isn’t particularly small, you are still asking an elephant to go into an enclosed space and remain calm for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Lady displayed a bit of a preference for working with females; she seemed more nervous when working with males. So, Kat decided she would try to work with Lady when it came to her foot treatments, since she didn’t show as much resistance toward Kat. We set up her foot soaks in her jacuzzi in the treatment area. Lady seemed food motivated, so we thought we would just ask her to come into the chute and see what happened. According to Kat, “We led her in with food and she followed right in with no reservations or hesitations. We got her to step into her foot soak, literally by just asking. Lady put one foot in at first, then I asked for the other one and took a step back, so Lady realized we were asking her to close the distance a little bit. She put her other foot in and that was that.”
Not only did Lady do what we asked right away, she also was immediately comfortable with allowing Kat to hold her nose to get a reward. Lady was very gentle in how she presented her nose, with her trunk relaxed, and held it there for a second or two before being given her food reward. For an elephant who had not been touched much, this was an incredible act of trust. When Kat opened up the gate to the chute, Lady walked out without showing aggression; there was no hitting of bars or lashing out. Kat said, “Along with that came the feeling of relief, knowing that we would be able to help her sooner, rather than later. That was one of the gifts of that first foot soak. We realized that we could start making a difference in her feet right away.”
Even though we knew there was the possibility of aggression, Lady was still willing to give these first treatments a try. There seemed to be a collective feeling that things will be okay which, with an elephant like Lady and the state her feet were in, was a gift. Trust remains especially critical when it comes to caring for Lady. She needs to know that you are focused on her and watching and listening to her during treatments. Because she feels respected, she is wonderful during her foot treatments and is one of the best examples of how well an elephant can respond to caregivers when their emotional health is taken into consideration.
This throwback video shows that first foot soak, exactly as Kat describes it.