What a Barn Truly Means to an Elephant

Brasilia Zoo - Belhina Babu

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.


  1. REPLY
    Claus says

    Great article! I wish Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil all the best. In your opinion, how low can the average winter temperatures be before the climate becomes too cold elephants? Regards Claus.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      Thanks. That is a huge question. When looking at captive elephants it varies. Due to the damage captivity causes on their entire systems, there are elephants that become cold at temperatures we might not consider very cold- and those are the ones you have to make sure you are providing for. As an example, at sanctuary we had an elephant that would start shivering right around 50 F and another elephant that would break the ice on the pond to go swimming when it was in the 30s. They are all very individual. It is not just dependent upon the lowest temperature, other factors come into play as well. Elephants have the ability to store up heat in their core during a sunny day. So if it dips down to 45F at night, but was sunny and 70 during the day, most elephants will be just fine. If it is rainy during the day and dips to the same temperature, many elephants would feel cold. For one night it’s not an issue for many, but for several nights in a row, it becomes a problem. Wind is also an issue, there is an enormous difference of a day where it’s 55F and still and one that has a cold constant breeze blowing. You’ll hear us say repeatedly, with sanctuary for elephants you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. The elephants that get cold the fastest are generally the ones who are less healthy and need more care and support. Ideally, in Brazil, we were looking for somewhere that had the lowest of lows at night at about 50F. We were ok with it going a little lower if it was during sunny and dry weather (which works here because winter and the dry season coincide). Lower than that and chances are you will have at least one elephant that will need to come into a warm barn more than once, and with that being the case, it means a large amount of money that will have to be put into building an appropriate facility that will not only keep them warm, but cater to all of the physical issues that come with elephants from captivity. The last barn in Tennessee cost over $3 million, and that was with much of the work and design being done by individuals who worked there. This is money that GSE will not have to spend on a facility and can instead put directly towards the care and rescue of elephants. As always, there’s a lot that goes into all of this and you always have to keep the bigger picture in mind. Not needing barns benefits the elephants in many many ways. There are no simple answers in elephant care, there is no magic number I can give you, elephants are phenomenally complex and it’s part of what makes them so wonderful. Hope this helps.

  2. REPLY
    Claus says

    Thank you very much for your thorough and comprehensive answer, Kat 🙂

  3. REPLY
    Brenda S. says

    I was lucky enough to spend time with elephants in Kenya, at Amboseli and Maasai Mara. Especially at Mara, I was stunned by the vastness of the view – the almost overwhelming expanse of sky and savanna. And it really struck me, how terribly cruel it is to take creatures who evolved in this land, and put them in small spaces with only walls to see. Maybe that aspect of captivity is not quantifiable – but it MUST be spirit-destroying.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      It is hard for some people to truly grasp the impact of captivity. They see an elephant at a zoo that looks ok to them, so they assume it’s not that bad. But, we have always said that seeing elephants in the wild makes it painfully clear how much they have lost in captivity. We have worked with some beautiful and wonderful elephants, but there is a presence that wild elephants have that is never there in captive elephants. It’s the spirit of a being living their life as they were meant to. And yes, there are many struggles for wild elephants, but none of it breaks them down the way captivity does. I’m glad you were able to experience fully what an elephant is meant to be.

  4. REPLY
    Todd says

    just curious —

    Did Florida fall off the map of the USA or did we loose one of our 50 states- that i usta missed ?
    How can one actually write that there is NO where us the USA that a elephant wont be cold ?

    I found the artical interestibg until that point of view- that certainly isnt factual was written.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      Hi Todd,

      The issue we had with this article was trying to keep it brief enough that people would read all the way through, yet touch on some of the major reasons, but of course, there are always more. There are indeed parts of Florida that are warm enough year round for elephants. But there are other issues that pop up. One is land in warmer areas of Florida has a tendency to be very expensive. When building a sanctuary, you must allow for the cost of caring for elephants and everything that accompanies that- you can’t afford to spend all of your funds on land. Fencing will be your biggest expense, and if the land costs too much, you will be putting too much of your donations towards property purchase. Substrate is also a huge issue in Florida. Less expensive lands have a tendency to be very swampy, and most of that is hard to property fence and somewhat unusable to elephants. Ringling’s center in Florida is touted to be a decent size, but the reality of it is most of the land is swamp and will go unused. There is also the issue of hurricanes and needing to build a more elaborate more stable barn structure to offer the elephants somewhere to go in case of those kinds of storms. So, while parts of Florida are warm enough year round, many issues make most of it unsuitable or you would still need a large expensive barn structure any way. We could go through each state and list the issues, but that was not the point of the article. The point was to educate people as to the other side of what a barn is for an elephant. I’m sorry that one point meant you lost the true intention of the piece.

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