Several of you have asked why we hold an elephant’s nose while we are working with them in a treatment scenario. There are several nuanced reasons as to why, but two very important reasons are connection and protection.
An elephant’s trunk has many purposes and its composition is much like a natural work of art. There are tens of thousands of muscles within, all with different purposes, and all working in concert with one another; the trunk helps strengthen their other senses and impacts many of their daily actions and interactions. So, it makes sense that changes or shifts in trunk muscles can reveal quite a bit of information about what is going on physically and mentally with an elephant.
For a caregiver, maintaining touch with such a sensitive part of the elephant’s body makes it easier to gauge what is going on with the elephant. Sometimes during treatments like footwork, you can do things that might cause discomfort or make them nervous. When our caregivers begin training or working with elephants who have been abused, even gentle and loving interactions might make the elephant nervous. For some elephants, this bond brings comfort through the simple physical statement of “I’m right here with you.” So, having physical contact with the elephant allows you to maintain a connection with them and to feel subtle shifts in their behaviors through muscle tension or movement that might not otherwise be evident.
When two caregivers work with an elephant, one can hold the elephant’s nose and watch her face, while the other person takes care of whatever treatment needs to be done. But, there are instances when only one caregiver works with an elephant – like when Kat does Lady’s footwork – and holding the nose allows Kat to stay in touch with Lady’s state of mind, even when she can’t keep constant eye contact. The continuous touch between the two is what allows that interaction to safely take place.
Another important reason for holding onto the elephant’s trunk is simply because it is the most dangerous part of their body in a protected contact scenario. The nose is something that can reach through bars and grab or pull or swing, or do any number of harmful things. Even though protected contact is a safer approach than free contact, it isn’t without its dangers, and caregivers need to be aware of where the trunk is and what it’s doing whenever possible.
Ultimately, having this relatively safe form of connection with an elephant allows them to understand that you are listening to them, watching and paying attention to their emotions and reactions, and responding to them in a way that shows respect.
Photo of Scott holding Rana’s trunk