You Ask, We Answer: Why Do We Hold an Elephant’s Trunk

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


  1. REPLY
    Debbie Sides says

    I really like this new section of Q&A. Fascinating. Thank you.

  2. REPLY
    Tammy says

    Quite a lot of things going on inside their cute trunks for sure but is the skin on their trunks any different than the rest of their body thinner thicker since they use them for a variety of purposes?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      The skin covering their body ranges from mm thick to inches. It’s all very different. the skin on the inside is thinner, but the outside is very thick.

  3. REPLY
    Marcia says

    Very informative and interesting! I think of their trunks so much differently now. Thanks!

  4. REPLY
    Sandy Crile says

    I see and feel a lot of love going on between those two!

  5. REPLY
    Wim says

    Wonderful explanations.
    So much information still keep wondering how does this interaction really feels!

  6. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman-Eaton says

    How interesting! Just look at Rana and how loving and expressive she is looking at Scott. Elephants amaze me in so many ways, but the one thing I am amazed at is their ability to forgive humans. An elephant that has been physically and verbally abused their entire existence like Rana, can now forgive humans and trust. This says so much about the expertise, patience and love that GSE gives them. Thank you GSE, you are totally awesome.

  7. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    And…THIS post is symbolic of all that is right at GSE!
    I haven’t said it in awhile, so Thank You, Scott, Kat & Team for all that you do to make GSE a slice of heaven on earth for the glory rls — and for being smart doing it — setting an example for others to follow (hopefully)!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Thank you!

  8. REPLY
    Katie Howard says

    That was supposed to say “ …for the girls”! Sigh.

  9. REPLY
    Sallie says

    One of the best moments with an elephant is walking with them, because they remember you and your kindnesses, when they were little orphans. It is true, an elephant never forgets the bad things and fortunately, the good things. My little orphan grew into a huge, aggressive and beautiful leader and can now mix with wild elephants. They can read you, and sometimes they get jealous if you show too much attention to others in the group. I may never see her again, but I will never forget her walking next to me and holding my hand gently, like two little kids in a park looking for a slide. I hope everyone who loves elephants will have this moment, or has had this amazing experience.

  10. REPLY
    John says

    I love to see how the people from the sanctuary interact with the elephants, especially Scott. He seems to have amazing connections with each of them, and I can see why they respond the way they do.

  11. REPLY
    Nancy says

    Extremely interesting!

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