What Elephants Can Teach Us About Forgiveness

elephant greeting

In one way or another, all captive elephants have suffered at the hands of humans. And while humans are starting to understand more and the mentality of keepers is changing, most elephants alive today were handled with the old school, good ole’ boys club, mentality of managing elephants. Many have been abused or dominated, but for many, the emotional abuse has a deeper impact. There are elephants across the globe that were called names, ridiculed, shamed, and even worse, isolated, ignored or given up on.As humans, we are aware of the deep impact that emotional abuse has. Being bullied in school is something people carry around for a lifetime, some abused individuals never find their voice and can repeat the same cycle over and over again, children who grow up believing the insults thrown at them for years on end. People have the ability to go to years of therapy and work on rationalizing these beliefs, doubts and fears. That’s a luxury elephants don’t have.

From their capture and early years, they already start out emotionally traumatized and without support , and, it only gets worse. Many are treated as a living objects-fed, given water, and medical care but nothing more, while others suffer at the hands of those who feed their ego by dominating something that weighs 10,000 lbs. And after all of this, time and time again, we have seen that when they are given a new chance at life, they are willing to open themselves up emotionally, to be vulnerable to both humans and elephants alike, and learn to trust again.

Of all of the elephants that have displayed these wonderful characteristics, there is one in particular whose story epitomizes how phenomenal they are in their ability to forgive. Her life will make you cringe with disgust at humans, but it is necessary to understand the full magnitude of her recovery.

(I promise this gets better soon)

This elephant grew up in zoos, somewhat typical to what went on at that time; she was given the name of the elephant she replaced. This began the cycle of showing how little she mattered as an individual. She was passed back and forth between several zoos later in life. She started showing signs of health issues, she lost significant amounts of weight, had trouble integrating with other herd members. She got pushed to the ground by other elephants, and was severely abused at the hands of her trainers. Eventually, after 31 years of essential solitude, neglect, trauma and abuse, a decision was made to send her to sanctuary. But at that point she wore many labels of a misunderstood elephant. They said she was anti-social, aggressive, a killer, and autistic. Even those who ‘liked’ her, referred to her as dirty and (wrongfully) being responsible for the death of one of their calves (disease related). There wasn’t anyone in her life that offered her solace.

She carried herself like someone who had been told they were worthless most of their life and there were doubts from some that she would even survive a year. But, she had other plans. Although she had been pushed away by other elephants many times before, she was willing to try again. Although human relationships had always proven to be extremely negative in the past, she allowed new humans into her life, hoping that this time would be the one exception and that she would be treated kindly.

And, of course, her story had a happy ending. She wasn’t a ‘mean’ elephant, or even remotely autistic, or any of the other things they said, she was just hurting in many ways. She had no issue socializing with other elephants, as a matter of fact, she became an absolutely integral part of the herd. She was a peacemaker, a nurturer, and selflessly, without a second thought, gave up things she enjoyed to help another struggling elephant. Her understanding and experience of deep-seated insecurities and unrelenting fears made her the perfect teacher and companion for the next elephant who also struggled greatly. Her role as a mentor only served to further her development into the elephant that she always had inside of her. When you look at her today, radiant and beautiful (she literally has a glow), it’s hard to imagine all she suffered through before arriving at sanctuary.

But this is so very elephant. That may sound like a silly statement, but as humans, it would be almost impossible to truly let all of that past go, and move on to a completely new future. It’s an amazing quality that elephants possess. She had every right to not trust people, every reason to lash out, but where would that get her? She could have chosen to keep to herself, where it was safe, and she didn’t risk getting hurt by others of her kind. But this is not their nature.  Every action, every decision that contradicted everything about her past, was a giant leap that took her away from who she once was, who she had no other choice but to be. Her actions defined ‘high risk, high reward’. And the payoff was having her life back.

This is all part of why we say elephants are so much better than us. I know that I have personally held grudges for much less. We latch on to stupid or silly things and carry them around with us for years. Some things are for a seemingly ‘good reason’ but the truth is, it doesn’t get us anywhere. Working around elephants constantly makes you not only examine yourself, your own baggage, and your own actions, but it pushes you to be a better person. They teach us that vulnerability is ok, the worst thing that happens when you put yourself out there, isn’t so bad, unless you let it be. They teach us that compassion is a transformative and beautiful thing, and it’s not really up to you to decide who deserves it. And they show us that without truly letting go of the past, we can’t move forward and become that version of ourselves that we always wanted to be. And they show us that it really is all possible if we just try. Elephants are humbling and inspiring, and it’s all without any spectacular show or tremendous effort, they just are. And they show us that it’s something we are all capable of.




  1. REPLY
    Ietje Breunis says

    Translated and shared on my FB page. Thank you for this wonderful story, it makes me love elephants even more.

  2. REPLY
    Melody Mangum says

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for posting it.

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