When we talk about creating a sanctuary in Brazil, one of the things we often enthusiastically mention is the elephants not needing to return to the barn.
Most people view true sanctuary as something that mimics what elephants would have in nature as closely as possible, but there’s so much more to it. For elephants, a barn is more than a building, it has both a physical and emotional impact on their being; the longer they are constrained, the more pronounced that impact is.
We’ll first talk about the physical impact, since it’s a little more basic. There have been many advances in the housing of captive elephants. Some of those include radiant heating in the floor, sand stalls, and poured rubber flooring. All of these are designed to minimize the debilitating effects of standing on hard surfaces. Foot and joint disease, along with arthritis, have been the leading cause of death among captive elephants, but with these design changes, there is a positive impact. These are better alternatives, but nothing compares to being able to stand on natural ground. And not just natural ground, ground that has not become compact because it has been walked on over and over again.
One elephant at sanctuary was in her 60s, and due to past injuries, had significant joint issues. She, like everyone else, would return to the barn when temperatures required. Some elephants tolerate the cold better than others and will stay outside longer, and she was one of those, reducing her dependency on the barn. Yet, every winter we watched the impact that the cold temperatures and being in the barn at night, had on her body. Even with specialized stalls, it didn’t take long before she would slow down, her limp would become a little more pronounced, she wouldn’t walk as far or as fast, and it became harder for her to lie down and get up. She was a tough and stoic girl, but it was still a little hard to watch the negative impact of the barn.
One thing that helped her was allowing her to have access outside on any night that was even borderline warm enough. She would come inside to eat and warm up, but when it was time for her to sleep, she would go right behind the barn and sleep in a nest of pine needles in the woods. Being able to sleep on a true natural substrate, even for a night here and there, made a big difference, physically and emotionally.
The emotional impact was something we witnessed in all of the elephants. Winters were short, but small space has a huge impact on captive elephants, even when limited. The first change would be that the girls would start to lose patience with each other. Elephants that would spend every day together and not leave each other’s side during the summer, would start to want more personal space. The elephants had access to 2 stalls (open to each other) for every set of 2 elephants, in the beginning of the winter they would usually both be in one, by the end, they were usually in their own. They would start to become less understanding of certain things and less willing to share. Behaviors that would go unnoticed outside (stealing hay or someone’s apple or piece of corn etc.) were not as tolerated inside. During colder, more extended winters there would even be an occasional shove here and there towards the end.
No matter what sort of enrichment is given to the elephants, they quickly become bored. Elephants are extremely intelligent, and enrichment is a good thing for them to have, but the artificial stimulation they receive from it generally only lasts a few minutes. This leaves much of their time inside with not much of substantial interest to do. Many of the girls at sanctuary stopped stereotyping and swaying after a short time of living in the sanctuary. There are some that would do it occasionally, and it was always when they were in the barn, the increased confinement would allow old behaviors to re-emerge. Although we did a 10 PM feed to check in on the girls, clean up their stalls, give them food and fresh hay, by morning they were just waiting for someone to come in, feed them, and let them outside.
And then, of course, there’s the reaction to the temperatures warming and the elephants being able to spend their days and nights outside. There is a hugely visible shift in their demeanors once they can nap in the sun on the hillsides, wander away from the barn, and spend their nights outside. The girls were always much lighter, much more vocal, and much more nurturing towards each other; and this shift happens almost immediately.
In the US it’s almost impossible to find somewhere warm enough for elephants to be offered year round outdoor living that isn’t too hot, or so dry that they can’t graze all year round. Here in Brazil it is different, we can offer the elephants so much more. The negative impact of being confined to barns, and the observed extreme positive impact of being outside day and night is why we have been so adamant about finding an area in Brazil that is warm enough that they don’t have to return if they do not want to.
There is so much growth that occurs during the warmer months: deepening of relationships, increased confidence as the elephants wander and discover new things. We want to and we can provide that to elephants all year round. While warm temperatures may seem like a very basic need to try to meet, the positive implications it has for the elephants and the difference it will make are immeasurable.