What is Sanctuary?

Sanctuary, by definition, is a place of refuge or safety. But the elephants have shown us that sanctuary is substantially more. Our vision of sanctuary isn’t an altruistic theory; it has been guided and defined by every elephant we have worked with over the past 35 years. Our actions are steeped in the teachings of elephants of our past. They acknowledge the individual and need to respect an elephant as a whole, while surrounding them in an expansive and natural environment. Sanctuary for elephants is profound, it’s dynamic, life altering, and so much more than just vast space.

True sanctuary is a constant balance of addressing an elephant’s inherent needs, while taking into account the immense physical and psychological impact a sterile and dominant captive life has had on each being as an individual.  Sanctuary care is extremely nuanced and requires deep understanding of complex beings. But, we owe it to each elephant who has shared a piece of their life with us, to take the lessons they offered and do our part to provide captive elephants globally with a genuine existence – with space, an environment close to their natural one, and physical and emotional room to heal in all aspects.

What It Takes

Developing an elephant sanctuary requires extensive knowledge of the natural life of elephants, how they live if left alone in the wild, an insight into their social structures, proper diet, methods of communication, and a keen understanding of the meaning of natural elephant behaviors, postures, and vocalizations.

But we also have to recognize what they’ve endured in captivity: extensive human dominance, physical punishment, the long-term impact of improper diet, the lack of social experience, isolation, and extreme confinement.  Most importantly, we have to understand the psychology of healing and the vast spectrum of individual responses to stress and trauma. Some individuals may recover quickly; others may have flashbacks of past sufferings that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

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Maia swimming and playing in newly dug pond at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil

Nurturing Body and Mind

Giving elephants space and dynamic surroundings allows them to express natural behaviors, while nurturing and stimulating them both psychologically and physically.  Every day is new – a different path, new smells, a new adventure where the elephants are faced with decisions and problem solving along the way.  This helps to rebuild a mind that has essentially gone to sleep after decades of the same small space and a routine that did not challenge a being that we know is extremely intelligent and complex.



Mud wallows, natural dirt, grass, and other varied substrate improve foot and joint health.  The ability to graze all day allows an elephant’s system to return to a more natural state, while encouraging their teeth to wear down properly. Vast space not only allows an elephant to exercise naturally by walking long distances, but it also engages muscles in their bodies that haven’t been used, sometimes in decades.  The act of climbing up and, more importantly, down a hill, stretching to reach the best piece of fruit on a tree, tearing grass from the ground, using their feet to cut the roots from vines – all of these movements are new to elephants who arrive at sanctuary.  These acts are incredibly basic, but sadly missing from the lives of captive elephants.

Sanctuary allows their bodies to return to a more natural state of being. The development and strengthening of muscles not only brings physical comfort, supporting aching joints and increasing range of motion, but it also builds a sense of confidence. Feeling better physically goes hand-in-hand with their ability to become emotionally stronger.  And so much of sanctuary is about the emotional recovery that takes place – the harder part of the journey for some.

The Strength of Autonomy

In the early years of sanctuaries, when an expansive habitat for elephants was a new concept, we thought that the key to healing and recovery was space, and offering elephants the ability to live with others of their own kind. And, while these things are fundamental, the true key to a new life is simple: choice.

When elephants are given the autonomy to choose their own paths, to make impactful decisions, we see their self-confidence grow, and we see their self-pride as they rejoice when conquering their life hurdles. Mostly, we watch as each choice helps them to explore a little more of their true identities as they take control over their anxieties and comforts. Autonomy unveils the magnificence of a being that will never again be suppressed. Instead, we celebrate with them: the birth of a new life.

One of the problems with elephants and captivity is that there is no way to know who they truly are unless they are given the space and time to examine themselves and their choices. For this to happen, first they need to be able to make their own decisions and, secondly, they need to be able to adjust those decisions if they find they don’t like the outcome.

Sanctuary gives elephants not only the ability to make judgments that affect their day-to-day lives, but also those choices that have a deeper impact. They start to recognize that they have a responsibility for the outcome of their decisions.  Some elephants who have had a rough or violent past find this process a little difficult. For others, it’s a journey that takes years, but the amazing being that they become allows them to live out the rest of their lives truly at peace.

Guida at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil
Maia and Guida
Maia and Guida
Maia & Guida at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil

Herd Mates

And, of course, they have the support of other elephants to help them along the way.  Despite their grossly abnormal years in confinement, elephants quickly learn to lean on one another, to nurture and be nurtured. It is their true nature.  They help each other through struggles, celebrate together in the joys of life, and honor one another when they need to step away for some alone time. These are friendships, true and uninhibited, among individuals happily willing to sacrifice self-comforts to ensure the well-being of another.

Elephants are the epitome of what it means to be a friend.  And when they are given space and choice, every elephant finds their place within the herd. In a true sanctuary, these friendships will never be taken away from them. Once they form these unbreakable bonds, they are able to remain family for the rest of their lives.


The physical and emotional healing process that we have seen time and time again, demonstrates that sanctuary works and that it is the most positive alternative for elephants in captivity.  The combination of a more natural life, the ability to choose, compassionate care, and the companionship of other elephants encourages a journey of introspection, where elephants rediscover themselves and what it means to be an elephant.

Elephants at sanctuary have shown us that even the most damaged can recover, that our actions do not define who we really are, and that it is okay to hurt and struggle, because life is about balance. And with an open heart, unbridled joy is just around the corner.  Elephant Sanctuary Brazil exists to provide a secure space that gives elephants a chance at this life.

Elephant Sanctuary Brazil

Elephant Sanctuary Brazil exists to provide a secure space that gives elephants a second chance at this life.