A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about how the elephants move around the sanctuary and our usage of gates between yards. There were a number of questions about why we don’t leave the gates open all of the time or have just one open area, so we thought we’d address that question more in depth.
The sanctuary habitat for the female Asian elephants is currently split into 5 yards – three smaller yards and two larger ones. Each yard is surrounded by fencing, which is part of the protected contact method we use in caring for the elephants. This fence system is built based on our experience with elephants in the past, and for a realistic world. In an ideal setting, elephants wouldn’t get sick, or they wouldn’t arrive in compromised states. Each of them would get along with one another perfectly. But a lifetime of poor or no socialization means that each elephant may express their emotions in different ways, including aggressive behaviors. Unhealthy captive environments often cause medical issues that need attention. Taking these issues into consideration, we want to create a scenario that will best serve the elephants and also protect the humans.
Having smaller yards close to the barn is helpful for things like introductions. We can observe interactions between new elephants and current residents, while allowing them space to move away from each other if they want to. Human presence always influences how elephants interact, so we create a controlled environment that allows them to get to know each other safely and on their own terms. There are also instances where an elephant may need medical care, so it is easier to monitor a severe acute condition when they are close to the barn and medical facilities for short periods of time.
Though we currently have a stable situation at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, elephants do not always get along, or don’t get along all of the time. This may change in our future, as the addition of new elephants will bring inevitable change in dynamics. Elephants are social beings, but sometimes they also want their own space. Past elephants we have worked with taught us that an individual might need their own closed-off space to relieve stress. While we want everyone to have close friends, sanctuary is about feeling safe enough to heal; we have known elephants that never want to share space with others because they express their emotions in a more aggressive way. Fencing gives us the opportunity to prevent fighting or to allow fearful elephants to move away from others. Some elephants learn how to fully socialize and some simply never will. And that is part of acknowledging and accepting their needs.
One of the worst things that can happen from a caregiver perspective is not having the ability to separate elephants who are being aggressive toward one another. Should that happen, we have no way of knowing how long the incident will last – minutes, days, weeks, months, or forever. Our job is to provide the elephants with what they do or may need. And it’s simply not fair to an individual to be confined to a space that is a few acres because of their emotional trauma, when there are other spaces that are 70 acres. So having gates between yards lets us shift elephants from one area to another, allowing each one to have new environments and vast space to explore.
Elephants like Lady, who will always be physically compromised by her feet, might not feel safe enough to share a big yard with other elephants. That doesn’t mean that she wants to be completely isolated from them or not socialize. But as much as she cares for her friends, she knows her limitations and – after a lifetime of mistreatment – may always have a fear that, if other elephants come toward her too quickly or show aggression, she could not run away fast enough to protect herself. So, sometimes she prefers to stay close to the barn, where she gets her foot soaks, and often she likes to explore the larger yards, where she receives treatment at the fence. She should be able to have room to roam and to heal in a way that makes her feel comfortable, so moving the other elephants into another yard allows her to take full advantage of sanctuary and still feel safe.
Having the ability to close gates between yards also has a functional purpose. We have to clean the yards. The fields need to be bush hogged to make sure the grass grows properly (which the elephants prefer). The staff builds and fixes ponds and does maintenance. You can’t drive a tractor or other large machinery in a yard with elephants in the same area. The elephants who live here at sanctuary are wild animals, and it is important to always be realistic about that and ensure that workers stay safe.
Monetarily and design-wise, it would be easier and less expensive to have one yard. But the sanctuary is built with intention, knowing that having gates and individual yards will almost definitely be needed. In an ideal world, we could have one open space. But we can’t operate according to ideals; we have to keep elephant wellness and human safety in mind. Structure can help the healing process, and healing is the ultimate goal of sanctuary.