Lady is a very sensitive elephant. She is in tune with everything around her and is very unsure around new people.
When Mateus recently shifted Lady from Yard 3 to Yard 2 for cleaning (which is usually a straightforward process where she comes quickly and willingly), she stopped moving and started stereotyping – a common behavior seen in elephants coping with trauma. Before coming to the sanctuary, she stereotyped significantly. Like with most new arrivals, her stereotyping decreased greatly upon arrival. She now exhibits this behavior rarely – rarely enough that Mateus was concerned to see her doing it. Kat came down to the barn to check and noted that Lady seemed unsettled. When Lady came into the barn for her usual foot soaks, she was not as relaxed as usual, despite the routine nature of what was happening. Her unease seemed unrelated to pain, but still, she would periodically start stereotyping. Lady continued this on and off throughout the morning.
We assumed that she was responding to contractors we had on-site that day. We currently have a team working on a project here. They seem nice, friendly, and respectful, but they are primarily male. Lady reacts more strongly to strange men than strange females. The men are working on a project far away from the Asian Barn; however, the morning she was stereotyping, they were getting materials from an area somewhat close to the barn. The materials area isn’t visible from the barn, but with her excellent sense of hearing and smell, Lady knew they were near. We saw something similar with Lady during the wildfire in October. While she didn’t react strongly to the fire, she stereotyped when the firefighters came closer to her yard.
Even though we have never been open to the public, our closed policy was designed with elephants like Lady in mind. Watching her reaction to having strangers on the grounds – even though they are nowhere near her – reminds us how fragile their healing is. In establishing the safe space that sanctuary should be, our role is to create a haven for the most challenging elephants. While many elephants need sanctuary, the ones who need us most are the sensitive ones like Lady, the fearful ones like Bambi, and the ones with aggressive pasts like Maia. As a sanctuary, we need to create a world where those elephants can thrive. We have to consider the impact any new design or element might have on our current and future residents. That means evaluating everything from fencing and gate location to training and our visitation policy.
Once the contractors left the area near the barn, Lady went in the far back of Yard 2 and seemed to settle. We noticed that the further back she went, the more at ease she appeared.
It’s just yet another reminder that this is their home, and we – even those who live here, too – are the visitors.