This is a complex and multifaceted question. Let me first say that elephants, like people, are individuals. They respond to crisis, trauma and life challenges differently. Some will manifest stress and anxiety physically, developing ulcers or immune system compromise, while others will develop behavioral issues, exhibiting stereotypical neurotic or repetitive patterns of swaying or even self-mutilation or aggression.
Others withdraw deeply inward, essentially tuning out the stress of their captive confines. Recovery for each of these elephants is different. The first step for all of them is to create an environment that meets their innate needs and provides them with autonomy and the opportunity to feel that they have some control over their own lives. We then have to establish trust and we must let them know that we respect and appreciate them for who they are as an individual. With trust, they learn that they can express themselves freely, through positive or negative behavior, without punishment.
From decades in captivity, all of these three primary factors have been suppressed. Some elephants forget how to express joy or anger, mostly because they learned that their emotional expression didn’t matter, nothing changed. When living the life of a circus elephant, any expression of negative behavior is immediately painfully punished. In zoos, the environments are starved for stimulation, causing a lack of emotional response because everything is the same, for decades. With autonomy, trust and communication, elephants start to express who they are, allowing us to see their likes and dislikes, further enhancing our relationship and our ability to provide them lifelong medical care. For each elephant this process is different, there is no one absolute formula or approach that works for all. There is however one factor that is pivotal to expedited recovery; the presence of other elephants – they can provide each other with a degree of nurturing and empathy that no human could possibly replace.