Elephant Sanctuary Brazil never lets you forget you’re at sanctuary – from the smallest details to the largest moments. The roosters sound the alarm around 4:30 in the morning and they call back and forth to one another until you are wide awake. All of the bird songs are unfamiliar in a delightful way. The peace that comes with being here lets you truly hear them. At home, birds singing can sadly become ambient noise, but here it’s part of the whole package.
The delightful and somewhat scary intimidating thing about sanctuary is just how small you can feel at times. I was able to spend some hours each day at the barn, using it as an office of sorts. I had a hard time working because every few minutes I would look up and see Pocha and Guillermina in the yard or hear them vocalizing. It’s a surreal feeling to be near them, and there’s no way to pretend it’s normal. It feels like magic. I was always trying to remain in the moment so that I could remember each day with as much detail as possible. Every small experience at the barn felt alternately larger than life – because I was watching elephants be elephants – and also intimate – because I was seeing a mother and daughter learn to live in a world they’re only just beginning to understand.
One afternoon, Scott surprised me with a tour of the habitat, driving a 4-wheeler over roads and streams I’d only heard of and trees I’ve only described: Middle Road, the “middle of nowhere,” Pequi, and the Lollipop Tree. I was able to see the different yards and finally comprehend the size of the sanctuary in a way that can’t be visualized on a map. We ended up at a fence line in Yard 4, where Mara, Rana, and Bambi were eating. I learned at that moment my role at sanctuary would be one of silent observer – making sure my presence was felt by the elephants as little as possible. We talk often about making sanctuary as close to a natural home for elephants as we can and, as much as I wanted to walk close to these individuals I felt I knew, the truth is that they wouldn’t know me in return; I’d just be an unnecessary distraction from their everyday lives. But seeing their faces, their eyes, their bodies – even from afar – was enough to give me a connection I was so deeply seeking.
The next morning, I was surprised again with a special trip to see Lady and watch some of her foot treatments. Lady is an elephant that I feel a strong connection to. Sheepishly, I admit that she is my favorite. I see her struggles and I relate (in my human way) to her health difficulties; something inside of me finds kinship in her need for deep connection with people. I found myself holding my breath as she walked near and my instincts told me to put my camera away and allow myself to experience the moment. Watching her treatment felt intimate and I knew I owed it to her to be present in my body and let my mind relax and focus only on what was at hand. Scott cut up a watermelon to feed Lady and gave me a slice. My tears mixed with the sugary watermelon juice and they ran down my chin and onto my clothes. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried and it wouldn’t be the last.
Each day I found the simplest of joys to relish. There was always a home cooked lunch on the stove and some foods I’d never tried. Desperate not to fall off and embarrass myself, I learned how to balance myself on the back of a 4-wheeler. I watched giant red ants carry pieces of leaves and hummingbirds hover near, seeming to have little fear of human or elephant. Smiling dogs chased the 4-wheelers, dodging into and out of the pathway with the agility of (tiny) racehorses. There were other moments in my trip that I cannot describe and so I must hold them in confidence with my own heart. Some of the views will never leave me and the shades of the sunsets challenge the range of the color wheel. The night sky revealed mysteries to me that I thought were unknown.
As I mentioned, the experience of sanctuary is a mixture of moments small and large. Jorgie the goat, who ate my sleeve, is a part of the experience; Maia slowly chewing on grass holds its essence; the people who care for the animals and manage the daily tasks smiled at me as we communicated using hand signals – they remain in my memory. But, mostly, I recall the majesty of the sun setting behind Rana as she ate a flake of hay: a moment both small and large. Those who live and work here will never get to see these things for the first time again. That is my great blessing.
Photo of Rana