Maia and Guida (who passed away in June 2019) were our first elephant rescues of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. With all of our new followers, we wanted to talk a little bit about who Maia was when she first arrived, and who she is now.
While we give the elephants the autonomy and space they deserve, they still need medical care. We need to be able to do bloodwork and treat any medical or physical conditions that arise. Most captive elephants need significant foot care upon arrival, and then maintenance care after that to keep their feet healthy. We are only able to do all of this with the help of training. We use a method of training called protected contact positive reinforcement. In the simplest terms, it means, behind the protection of a fence, we ask them for certain behaviors (for example – present their feet for filing or trimming) in exchange for treats. If they choose not to participate, they can walk away, and we will try again later.
Most of the elephants here in South America arrive having never been trained in this method before, including Maia. The treatment chute is an area of the barn that is small enough to keep them from turning around, and it has widely spaced bars so we can see them, and they can see us. We use it for more in-depth medical care and initial training and foot care, but the elephants also walk out of them whenever they leave the barn. The first time we had Maia stop and closed her in the treatment chute, she became stressed. She never lashed out, hit the bars, or tried to grab us. Her face showed her immediate fear and her expectation that something bad was about to happen; she was ready to defend herself if needed. Performing elephants are sometimes taken somewhere out of the public eye, closed in, and physically reprimanded when they are ‘bad’. Maia was labeled as a bad elephant while with the circus, and may have experienced this in her past.
Once we saw the fear on Maia’s face, we immediately opened up, let her out, and let her know it was all ok. Unfortunately, for us to provide her with needed foot care, she had to become comfortable being closed in the chute. So, the next day, we stopped her and gave her treats without closing the gate. The morning after we closed her in for three seconds with treats lining the floor, and then immediately opened back up. The next day, she was in there for five seconds with more treats. Then, we would close her in for five seconds, and gently place a hand on her, and then let her out. Each time, she received tons of praise and big food rewards. It took working on this every day for about two weeks until she started to trust that we weren’t going to hurt her.
That is part of who Maia was when she first arrived almost four years ago. We tell you this, not so you feel sorry for her, but so you can understand that everyone who arrives here has their own troubled past that they face as part of their healing. This somewhat common reaction is also part of why we don’t allow visitation. Maia to this day does not like strangers in her space, she quickly becomes agitated. Lady doesn’t even like strange voices (we don’t listen to phone messages around her). Every elephant is different, but it’s our job to care for and protect each and every one of them.
In the past four years, Maia has learned, grown, and become much more comfortable and confident. Maia also trusts her team of dedicated support staff- trust is huge with her. Allowing trust to build is the foundation for meaningful long-term relationships with the elephants in our care. It is part of what allows them to be vulnerable enough to work through past traumas. Sanctuary is not just about space, autonomy, and being part of a herd, it’s also about creating a safe space for growth and healing. It’s what we mean when we say #sanctuaryheals.
Photo of sweet, smiling Maia, showing us how far she has come.