Category Archives: Elephants

Elephant Journeys

I know, I know, its been entirely too long since I’ve made a post! I have been all over India with sporadic internet access. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around all I’ve seen and thinking, “How can I possibly share this in a way that means anything?”

My first journey was to Mysore. I visited the elephants at Mysore Zoo, where a young male spent his day chained on a concrete platform while the other eight roamed around the enclosure and cooled off in the pool. I don’t know why he was being held there, with no access to water, stretching and straining and pulling on the chains.


Miserable and unable to move at Mysore Zoo.

Then I went to Mysore Palace, where riding elephants spend all day on hot pavement, walking endless circles with tourists on their back. They are given no water or rest and bear the marks of their mahouts’ bullhooks on their foreheads and the wounds from the chains that constantly encircle their ankles.


Exhausted and dehydrated at Mysore Palace.

After a short break back in Chennai, where I saw something that gives the promise of hope (which I will reveal later!), I headed to Kerala, to the site of the (in)famous Thrissur Pooram festival. I was supposed to accompany an inspection team appointed by the Animal Welfare Board of India to see the elephants commissioned to appear in the festival. However, the forest department officers and elephant owners disallowed their entrance and they were not able to do their job. This sign of how tense the situation is made the front page of the newspaper the next day. I watched the elephants along with all the tourists as they arrived, stepping off of trucks, walking through burgeoning crowds, chains jingling. Their mahouts parked them beneath the trees where many of them swayed or bobbed in stereotypic agony. They too wore the wounds of captivity, displayed for all to see, yet few notice.


The kings of the jungle, submissive and broken after years of abuse. Thrissur, Kerala.

I also visited Guruvayoor temple, where more than 40 elephants spend 23 hours a day tied to the same spot. Here again was the endless stereotypic swaying and bobbing. To me, the pain there was palpable, but the smiles on other visitors’ faces showed again how little most people understand. Pressure has increased so much that the temple no longer allows photos, but I was able to sneak a few.

Mighty tuskers, chained 23 hours a day and at the mercy of their mahouts, Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala.

Mighty tuskers, chained 23 hours a day and at the mercy of their mahouts, Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala.

From there, I headed to Delhi and on to Agra. I stood in awe in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, fed monkeys at the Taj Fort, and finished my souvenir shopping.


Early morning at the Taj Mahal.


The monkeys at Taj Fort got the leftovers of my breakfast fruit salad.

The next day, I was rejuvenated by a visit to Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Center, home to nineteen rescued elephants. I saw elephants taking long walks, eating pound after pound of fruit, and resting in the shade with friends. There are so many people fighting for a better life for the elephants of India- there is hope.


Freedom and friendship at Wildlife SOS.

I also visited Wildlife SOS’s sloth bear facility and learned about the awful tradition of dancing bears. Thankfully, the hard work of this organization put an end to this practice and provided other means for the families to make a living. Now the bears reside here in peace but they’ll never be rid of the scars on their snouts through which a rope was threaded and many of them also show stereotypic behavior indicative of the pain they bore in the past.

Then by train, by plane, by car, I scurried back to Chennai to embark on a three-day road trip to Kanchipuram and Kombakonum. With my Indian mentors Suparna and Supraja and Swiss filmmaker Bridgette, we visited six temple elephants. Some of them will see better days very soon (again, I’ll reveal all later!), others, in less desperate need, must wait. They live on concrete, chained and commanded at all times. Here again, the swaying and bobbing, inadequate methods for dealing with intense emotional and physical stress.


Life in a concrete box. Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.

When I see others laughing at the elephants “dancing”, when I know the real pain behind it, I almost wish I also was ignorant. But for the most part, even though it involves looking upon such misery, I am so glad and honored to be working for these amazing animals. I am so lucky to have been taken under the wing of Dr. Gay Bradshaw at the Kerulos Center, and through her so many others. I’m so proud of the work that is being done by elephant advocates all over the world and honored just to be in their presence. I am more determined than ever to devote my life to this, to become one of those advocates, working tirelessly for each and every elephant.

I want to close by saying: This isn’t only India. This isn’t only Thailand. Everywhere that there are elephants held captive, there is suffering. There is the severing of families. There is training by fear and pain. There are chains and bars and concrete. Do not visit elephants in zoos and circuses, do not support this terribly inhumane breaking of a glorious spirit. Elephants deserve better.

Tamman! Tamman!

I am incredibly proud to have played a role in the March sterilization clinic at BLES. Several incredible professionals joined us for an intense seven days of surgery and treatment. Dr. Poppy and vet nurse Wa came from Chiang Mai, Dr. Lauren from the UK, and Monica, a fellow American living in Chaing Mai, worked together so well and it was amazing to see them in action!

Dr. Saradet and his team from Pitsanaluck did an outreach clinic at a local clinic for three days as well. With Katherine and David working the front end and mahouts going out to gather up more and more animals, the team successfully sterilized (drum roll please) a RECORD 213 dogs and cats!


Pups awaiting surgery.


Post-surgical pups.


Dr. Poppy and Dr. Lauren hard at work! These two are superstars!


During the clinic, a local man brought a very special dog to us- Sabi- who had been hit by a car and was paralyzed in her back legs. It was evident it had been a while since the accident as she has bad wounds on the tops of her back feet and inside her hips where she has been dragging herself. I gave this beautiful girl a bath and spent an hour or so ridding her of ticks and fleas. She is so patient with her wound treatment, even falling asleep on her back as I treated them! Soon she’ll have a wheelchair like iMac’s and we hope the two will become friends. We formed a bond during the short time we spent together before I left Thailand so I think about her often, but I know David and Katherine are taking excellent care of her. Welcome to the BLES family, Sabi, your luck has certainly changed!


How gorgeous is my friend Sabi?


She is such a trooper, falling asleep during a wound treatment.

I was happy to help, some days at the clinic and other days holding down the fort with guests back at the sanctuary. The sterilization clinic was a main reason that I extended my trip as I knew it would be a busy week! The incredible dedication of the BLES team continues to astound me. I look forward to helping one in the future- I especially look forward to one suggestions\ coming to fruition: David driving around on his motorbike with a megaphone yelling, “Tamman! Tamman! (Sterilization! Sterilization!)”

Everyday is magic.

A picture is worth a thousand words!

Best friends: Pang Noi and Pang Suai.

Best friends: Pang Noi and Pang Suai.

Lom, who is just 10 years old, and her adoptive mother, Pang Tong.

Lom, who is just 10 years old, and her adoptive mother, Pang Tong.

Boon Thong, who has a square pink patch on her back where the chair she carried tourists in for so many  years used to sit.

Thong Dee, who has a square pink patch on her back where the chair she carried tourists in for so many years used to sit.

Pang Dow enjoying grass from the enrichment frame. Despite a broken ankle that didn't heal properly, she was forced to work for many years before coming to BLES.

Pang Dow enjoying grass from the enrichment frame. Despite a broken ankle that didn’t heal properly, she was forced to work for many years before coming to BLES.

Mr. Moo, a strong 50-year-old who used to help his mahout log. He now has a better life here, and so does his mahout.

Mr. Moo, a strong 50-year-old who used to help his mahout log. He now has a better life here, and so does his mahout.


The Gossip Girls: Lotus, Pang Dow, and Wassana (in the boot that protects the injury she sustained from stepping on a land mine).

Oh my goodness, I’m in Thailand!

Sawat dii kah!

After a very, very long journey (38 hours, all told), I’m on the other side of the planet in Thailand! A few hiccups along the way and very little sleep so as soon as I made it to my lovely homestay, I crashed at 7:30 pm. Wah-lah! Acclimated to the time change on the first day.


The smallest, but most beautiful, airport I’ve ever seen.

I was greeted at the homestay by the incredibly lovely Rerai and Heinz, who did not expect me until the next day. They handled this with incredible grace and kindness and had me settled quickly. I have my own little bungalow!


Home sweet home at Paradeise.

This morning I was picked up by Katherine’s husband and co-founder of BLES, Anon. He doesn’t speak English but has a welcoming smile. I spent the day with Katherine and David soaking it all in and learning as many names as I could (with notebook in hand!)

Today’s highlights:

  • Watching Pang Noi and Pang Sui, best friends in their 30s, interact with Ngor, a 70-year-old male. This was the first time the ladies and Ngor had ever interacted and it was a very special moment.
  • Watching Mee Chok play under the hose. Mee Chok is only seven but suffers greatly from PTSD. He was so delighted with his shower that it went on for almost an hour!
  • The Gossip Girls joining us for lunch. Wassana, Lotus, and Pang Dow are incredibly bonded and also enjoy spending time with the humans- especially when there is possibility for a special snack.
  • Cuddling with Winter. Winter is an 8 month old puppy with hip dysplasia. She can’t (or couldn’t) walk on her back legs but adores a cuddle. We spent about an hour together. A little while later, she walked for the first time in ages! Another incredibly special moment.
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    Mee Chok enjoyed playing the water from the hose. (That’s Katherine being his personal sprinkler.)


Pang Noi and Pang Sui enjoying an afternoon dip.

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that the SD card reader I brought along is not compatible with my Mac, so I can’t share nearly as many pictures as I’d like. These are from my iPhone.


Goodnight/Good day!

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Elephants

This is the final paper that I submitted for Paul Waldau’s Introduction to Anthrozoology class. Learning about PTSD in elephants gave me the courage to say “YES, whatever it takes, I’m dedicating the rest of my life to helping captive elephants.” I owe this mostly to Gay Bradshaw’s incredible book, Elephants on the Edge, click here to get your own copy! I also recommend this New York Times Article.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Elephants


Poaching, culling, capture, and translocation have caused rapid population decline and disruption of family units in elephants. As a matriarchal society of highly emotional and intelligent animals, the loss of the family unit has serious effects on orphaned elephants’ social, cognitive, and emotional health. Observations of behavior in elephants who have experienced trauma have led experts to create a new field of trans-species psychology and diagnose these elephants with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While some treatment is promising, the real need lies in ending the abuses leading to the trauma and subsequent emotional disorders.

Introduction: The elephant-human relationship

            The relationship between elephants and humans has spanned centuries. Elephants have filled many roles for humans: idol, laborer, warrior, entertainer, educator, and financier. Hindus worship an elephant-headed god named Ganesha, elephants are featured heavily in African myths, Sri Lankans dance to honor the elephants and elephants are coveted by royalty in Thai folklore (Scigliano, 2002). Humans started taming elephants to serve as laborers and weapons of war as far back as 5,000 years ago and Julius Caesar designed a coin featuring an elephant, to represent himself, stomping on a serpent, to represent his enemies. The Romans were also the first to employ elephants in circuses to entertain audiences with tricks and keeping elephants in zoos continues to be a widespread practice. Ivory has long been prized throughout the world, as tokens of good luck or rare commodities to represent wealth and class, leading to poaching of elephants in Africa. Furthermore, humans have invaded elephant lands as our growing population demands more space and have culled populations to decrease human-elephant conflict (Scigliano, 2002).

While humans seem to have derived many benefits from elephants, elephants have suffered greatly in the relationship. These practices have lead to a dangerous drop in elephant populations: an estimated population of 10 million African elephants in 1900 dropped to between 484,000 and 684,000 in 2013 (Conservation Status, 2013). Whether it is poaching for ivory, culling to reduce populations, or capturing for entertainment or labor, the result is always an abrupt alteration in elephant family structure. Highly social animals, such as elephants and humans, can be greatly affected by such changes, even to the point of mental disturbances, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therefore, in order to understand PTSD in elephants, we must first be informed in elephant culture and society.

Elephant family structure, culture, and society

            An elephant herd, whether African (Loxodonta africana) or Asian (Loxodonta maximus) consists of up to 100 elephants led by female elders called matriarchs, and includes several generations of females and their calves. Calves are suckled for five years after birth and the females stay with the herd forever. Males leave the herd when they become sexually mature between the ages of 12 and 15. Males, which are called bulls, sometimes travel in groups of two to four (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009).

The infant-mother bond is very strong, but calves are raised amongst the family and surrounded by “allomothers”: their grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts, sisters, and cousins (Bradshaw, 2009). Elephant society exudes a great personal sense of belonging in its members. All family members tend to the infants and the ill and often reciprocate when they are helped. The family unit is essential to social and ecological learning. They are excellent communicators and can recognize the calls and faces of around 100 other elephants outside of their herd. Calves learn what vegetation to eat and how to use their trunks through observation of elders and practice. Furthermore, play amongst elephants helps to establish relationships and encourages autonomy. While their sisters remain with the herd and begin having calves of their own, males elephants (bulls), leave the family and learn the etiquette and lifestyle complexities of their sex from older bachelors.

As their highly social lifestyle suggests, elephants have been found to be deeply emotional and highly intelligent animals. When culling, poaching, or capture disrupts the family structure, it can affect an elephant’s social, intellectual, and emotional wellbeing.

Cognition, intelligence and emotions in elephants

            Elephants demonstrate intelligence in several ways that can be interpreted and quantified by human beings. Besides the fact that they can be trained by humans to perform duties and tricks, they are also tool-users, and have been observed both in the wild and in captivity modifying sticks to serve as fly swatters and back-scratchers (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009). Elephants are among the few species to pass a mirror-recognition test, which was designed to test for self-awareness (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009).

The phrase “an elephant never forgets” has been put to the test and proved somewhat accurate: elephants do possess the ability to remember many things for a long length of time. A 1957 study showed that a captive female was able to remember 20 pairs of images and could still choose the “correct” image from each pair a year later. Other researchers have discovered that elephants can differentiate between the sounds of familiar versus unfamiliar elephants, even when they haven’t been in contact with the familiar elephant for twelve years (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009).

Elephants outperformed other non-human animals, including non-human primates, when asked to choose the larger of two quantities, a skill referred to as relative quantity judgment. Researchers Naoko Irie and Toshikazu Hasegawa (2009), wrote about their study:

“The most intriguing point was that the elephants did note exhibit disparity or magnitude effects, in which performance declines with smaller differences between the quantities in a two-choice task, or the total quantities increases respectively…The disparity and magnitude effects are explained by the accumulator model, in which animals are assumed to recognize numerosities or quantities using an accumulated analog representation without recognizing absolute numbers or labeling each separate object (Meck & Church, 1983). The performance of elephants cannot be explained by this model, suggesting that elephants might be using a different mechanism to compare and represent quantities than previously suggested for other species.”

Elephant anatomy further supports intelligence. They have the largest brain of all land animals and the ratio of their brain cortex size to their body size is 2.49, a large ratio among non-human animals. In theory, large brain sizes are correlated with intelligence (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009).

The anatomy of structures in the brain also supports theories of elephants being highly emotional animals. Researchers Patrick Hof, John Allman, and their colleagues, have found that elephants, along with great apes and cetaceans, have spindle cells. Also referred to as von Economo cells, for the scientist who identified them in the human brain, they are believed to be central in the experience of love and suffering (Knight, 2006, Chen, 2009).

Elephants are widely known to grieve over the deaths of their family members and even have mourning rituals (Bradshaw, 2009). They have been observed covering not only their own dead with dirt and sticks, but human bodies as well. They visit the sites of the deceased for years. Elephants in captivity have shown grief after the loss of a friend, showing signs such as passivity and insomnia. Elephants show devotion to family members as evidenced by the many accounts of entire families slowing their pace to allow an ill or injured family member to keep up (Bradshaw, 2009).

There is also evidence that elephants form distinct personalities. Anecdotes abound from people like Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife trusts to take in orphaned elephants (Bradshaw, 2009). Also, a study by the Amboseli Elephant Research Project assessed a group of 11 elephants and found among them different combinations of 27 personality traits.

Any animal who has been proven to have such high intelligence and deep emotions is sure to suffer when their lifestyle is abruptly overturned or they are subjected to living in an unnatural environment and/or social group. Poaching, culling, capture, and relocation leave lasting scars on elephants.

Poaching, Culling, Capture, and Translocation

            Poaching is the illegal hunting of animals, such as killing an animal without a required government permit or trespassing on protected lands such as a national park and killing an animal (Poaching, 2013). Most elephant poaching is carried out in the hopes of securing their ivory tusks for sale, but hunting for the purpose of consumption is still occurring in some areas (Chadwick, 1992). Poaching has been an enormous threat to elephant populations and the victims often leave behind infants and other family members who suffer greatly.

Culling occurs when a government decides a species has overpopulated an area and needs to be downsized (Bradshaw, 2009). The justification for culling is controversial and is nearly always based on human needs. Culling resulted in the death of 16,201 elephants in Kruger National Park between 1966 and 1994, and 50,000 elephants in Zimbabwe between 1966 and 1996.

      Culling also happens to provide the easiest way to capture infant elephants to sell to zoos and circuses or to translocate. After witnessing the massacre of their entire families, infants are tied to the bodies of their dead mothers until transport (Bradshaw, 2009). Translocation of infants is carried out in an effort to normalize elephant populations and replace bulls who have fallen victim to poaching.

Disturbances in Wild Elephants

            Culling, poaching, and translocation have had numerous observable effects on the behavior of orphaned elephants who continue to live in the wild. The young male elephants often miss the crucial stage of learning from their male elders and are therefore unversed in the appropriate handlings of social interactions, leading to highly irregular behavior (Bradshaw, 2009). In Pilanesberg in the 1990s, translocated males were witnessed harassing matriarchs, which does not occur in normal elephant populations. Even more disturbing, bulls in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and Pilanesberg National Park killed over 100 black and white rhinoceroses. Not only were the bulls goring the rhinoceroses, they were first attempting to copulate with them. In Addo Elephant National Park, bull-on-bull aggression and fatalities noticeably exceeded normal rates.

Measurement of corticosteroid metabolites in bull dung indicated a high level of stress in the translocated bulls. Their behavior “probably reflects cumulative effects of several factors that disrupt normal social life, including early trauma, abnormal attachment bonding, and conditions of chronic, elevated stress…(Bradshaw, 2009) “

Males are not the only sex behaviorally affected by the abnormal conditions. Violence and aggression towards humans has increased in both sexes (Bradshaw, 2009). Elephant attacks and damage resulted in the evacuation of 300 villagers in Sierra Leone. The abrupt termination of family lives in female infants effect their mothering skills later in life. Normally, the average age of first birth is 16 years old, but due to culling and poaching, the distribution of ages has skewed toward younger orphaned elephants, which has lowered the average age of first birth to just 14 years old. These ill-prepared young mothers have been witnessed leaving their infants to charge tourists and ignoring the calls of distressed, endangered, and separated infants. Uncharacteristic “social aloofness among herd members (Bradshaw, 2009)” has also been reported.

In 2013, research was carried out comparing groups of elephants in Amboseli National Park, who have been reasonably undisturbed, and Pilanesberg National Park, where the elephant population is largely made up of orphaned elephants translocated in the 1980s and 1990s (Shannon et al., 2013). The researchers played recorded calls of familiar and unfamiliar elephants of different ages to both groups to observe the elephants’ reactions and gauge social knowledge. They found that the Amboseli elephants reacted appropriately based on social category and carried out defensive measures in response to the calls of alien elephants. They also catered their reactions to the age of the callers. The Pilanesberg elephants, however, did not show the ability to discriminate between calls based on familiarity or social hierarchy and demonstrated fewer defensive behaviors. The researchers attributed this apparent lack of social knowledge in the Pilanesberg orphaned elephants to trauma experienced early in life and the absence of role models during critical periods (Smith, 2013).


Disturbances in Captive Elephants

            Captive elephants, who often experience the same early-life traumas and premature separation from their natural family as the translocated elephants, are further affected by living in man-made environments with few elephant companions, or even alone. Their scenery and companions may change several times throughout their lives due to being shifted around as their human caretakers see fit (Bradshaw, 2009). It is not surprising that elephants can be aggressive, dangerous animals in captivity, and that they have been the cause of multiple human fatalities. Some elephants seem to take their anger and feelings of helplessness out on their conspecifics. Many captive elephants also display stereotypies such as continual swaying and incessant chewing, which are signs of distress.

Elephants in circuses and zoos are often disciplined and trained with a bullhook, also called an ankus, which is a wooden pole with a metal hook on one end. Since ancient times, handlers have used the sharp hook to inflict pain on an elephant’s most sensitive areas to persuade them to perform certain acts. The guidelines of American Zoological Association, which accredits zoos throughout the nation, allows for such punishment.

There seems to be no laws or guidelines protecting captive elephants in the United States. In the well-documented abuse case of Dunda, who was beaten with wooden axe handles for two solid days at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1988, the perpetrators escaped without any form of punishment (Bradshaw, 2009). The investigation showed irrefutable evidence of cruelty and abuse against the frightened elephant who had just been relocated to the park and was acting aggressively. Public outcry was not enough to convince the San Diego attorney’s office to press criminal charges on Dunda’s behalf.

The AZA also does a subpar job of ensuring that elephant enclosures are built with their unique needs in mind. The most common ailments in captive elephants are foot disease and joint disorders due to their unnatural concrete exhibits (Bradshaw, 2009). Sixty-two percent of elephants held captive in AZA accredited zoos have severe foot disease, and forty-two percent have joint disorders. A thirty year study in the free-ranging Amboseli elephant population show zero cases of either condition. Data on captive elephants around the globe from 1960 to 2005 reveals an average lifespan of 16.9 years, a severe contrast to wild elephants who live an average of 56 years.

The AZA does recommend that elephants, being highly social creatures, be housed with at least two conspecifics (Vanitha, Thiyagesan and Baskaran, 2011). Worldwide, an estimated 5.5% of zoo elephants live alone. A far larger number of elephants live solitary lives in the temples of India, where they perform in weddings and festivals and bless visitors. When they are not performing their duties they are chained in small, barren enclosures. It is these lone elephants, when compared to captive elephants kept in groups of conspecifics, who suffer the most from stereotypies, such as weaving, head bobbing, and pacing, which signify distress.

Captive elephants further suffer as victims of breeding programs. Female elephants are repeatedly subjected to transrectal ultrasound and reproductive exams and males undergo anal training for sperm collection. Still, infertility is significantly higher in captive populations. During labor, female elephants are chained in leg restraints and after birth the infant is immediately removed for examination, which fails to decrease the high infant mortality rate of captive elephants. Furthermore, infanticide, which is almost unheard of in wild elephant populations, is a distressing problem in zoos.

The abnormal behaviors displayed by both captive and wild elephants who have been affected by early trauma show a striking resemblance to humans diagnosed by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Diagnosing PTSD in Elephants

            For her book, Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, Gay Bradshaw presented five psychiatrists with the case study of an elephant named Jenny (2009). In the case study, Jenny was called E.M., and her species was not mentioned. The psychiatrists read about her aggressive, volatile behavior, her numerous, sometimes self-harming, stereotypies, and her cycling moods. They also were told that she was from a matriarchal society in Africa and had seen her family massacred and was then kidnapped and tortured. Treatment with several medications had failed to help her. All five psychiatrists diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder without knowing that she was an elephant.

PTSD was first defined in 1980, when it was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (Friedman, 2014). The diagnosis was created for Holocaust survivors, war veterans, and victims of events such as torture, rape, natural disasters, airplane crashes, and car accidents. In the current 5th edition of the DSM, there are eight criteria for diagnosing PTSD. They are as follows:

“Criterion A: Stressor. The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence…

“Criterion B: Intrusion Symptoms. The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s): [memories, nightmares, and flashbacks]

“Criterion C: Avoidance. Persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event.

“Criterion D: Negative alterations in cognitions and mood. Negative alterations in cognitions and mood that began or worsened after the traumatic event.

“Criterion E: Alterations in arousal and reactivity. Trauma-related alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the traumatic event [aggression, irritability, self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance, hyperactive startle response, difficulties concentrating, sleep disturbance.]

“Criterion F: Duration. Persistence of symptoms…for more than one month.

“Criterion G: Functional significance. Significant symptom-related distress or functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational).

“Criterion H: Exclusion. Disturbance is not due to medication, substance use, or other illness (DSM-5 Criteria for PTSD, 2014).”

Despite their inability to talk with humans, the actions of distressed elephants like Jenny are sufficient to warrant a diagnosis of PTSD. Thus emerges the domain of trans-species psychology (Bradshaw, 2009).

Criterion A is easily met by the traumas affected elephants have experienced early in life due to culling, poaching, capture, relocation, and for some, captivity. As infants, they have watched their families be killed, have been left with no guidance or nurturance, have been captured and moved to new places. Those who are sent to live in captivity suffer through cruel training and experience rectal and/or vaginal penetration for breeding purposes. They live with wounds from training with bullhooks and are in constant pain from foot disease.

While no one can directly ask the elephants if they experience memories, nightmares, or flashback of the traumatic events, elephants have shown us that they do retain memories for incredible amounts of time. Evidence of severe and sudden mood changes may signify the occurrence of memories and flashbacks and therefore Criterion B is met.

Criterion C is avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event. At the Sheldrick Trust, Dame Sheldrick has seen orphans avoid social interaction and seek isolation, which is very atypical in elephants (Bradshaw, 2009). The cycling of moods as noted for Criterion B also serves to meet Criterion D.

Criterion E is met with aggressive behavior, self-destructive behavior, and irritability, which are witnessed in many of the affected elephants. Sleep disturbances have also been noted (Bradshaw, 2009). Criterion F calls for the behaviors to last at least one month, a time frame easily met for the symptomatic elephants.

Functional significance, to meet criterion G, is obvious in the dysfunctional social relationships seen in traumatized elephants, whether free or captive. Criterion H simply calls for the ruling out of other causes of the disturbed behavior, such as medications, substance abuse, and illness. While the symptoms may be exacerbated by severe foot pain in elephants in captivity, the elephants in the wild still display behaviors associated with PTSD despite physical wellness. Medication and substance abuse are not relevant to elephants in this case.

Dr. Evelyn Abe, an ethologist who grew up in northern Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s, has witnessed PTSD firsthand in elephants and humans (Seibert, 2006). Abe and her family lived as refugees in Kenya for several years to escape the violence in Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin. As war raged, elephants were poached in massive numbers, nearly decimating the population and destroying families. When Amin was ousted in 1979, both human and elephant communities began to slowly recover. But just seven years later, violence erupted again as war broke out between the government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Here, Abe saw tragic similarities between young male elephants, who after the death of the older elephants were left to fend for themselves, and the young boys recruited by the LRA, having watched the murders of their families, or in some cases, forced to do the killing themselves.

In an interview, Abe said “All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed- no fathers, no mothers, only children looking after them. They don’t go to school…No infrastructure. They form these roaming, violent, destructive bands. It’s the same thing that happens with the elephants. Just like male war orphans, they are wild, completely lost (Seibert, 2006).”

As Abe illustrates, the behaviors in humans and elephants suffering from PTSD bare a striking resemblance to one another. Treating the condition in each species means overcoming different, yet similar, obstacles.

Treatment for PTSD in Elephants

Treatment of PTSD in humans includes therapy with a psychiatrist and the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), medications that are also used to treat depression (Treatment of PTSD, 2014). While human treatment is far from easy or straight forward, elephant treatment may be even more complicated as the main human treatment, therapy, is language-based and therefore unsuitable for elephants.

In captivity, elephants may be medicated with tranquilizers (Bradshaw, 2009). While this subdues them, making the job of their caretakers easier and hopefully preventing self-harm, it is no way treating PTSD. The options for elephants in captivity are few. It would be ideal to provide a more realistic environment in which the elephants can roam, along with a more stable family structure. Neither of these things is taking place very quickly, and in many zoos and other places of captivity, efforts are small.

Elke Reisterer is a masseuse who has been practicing on a wide variety of non-human animals since 1997 (Bradshaw, 2009). She travels around the world to practice TTouch, a specific nervous system based touch therapy, on distressed captive animals. Her personal experiences suggest that TTouch and massage therapy may greatly reduce distress in non-human animals, including elephants. At this time, the availability of the therapy is limited.

Unfortunately for captive elephants suffering from PTSD, recovery is nearly impossible, considering that their captivity is part of the trauma (Bradshaw, 2009). Bradshaw (2009), writes, “ From the point of view of traumatology, therapy conducted in zoos or Indian elephant labor camps cannot be expected to achieve recovery when recovery, by definition, demands the end of captivity itself.”

For elephants in the wild, the goal is to reform family units. Since the 1980s, humans have organized translocations in an attempt to rehabilitate elephant families (Bradshaw, 2009). Introducing older male bulls in areas where the young orphaned bulls are behaving hyper-aggressively has helped to quell inter- and intra-species violence. As the groups of female elephants grow and age, it is the hope that normal mother-infant attachments will resume. The company of conspecifics helps to abate symptoms of PTSD.

The greatest hope for elephant sufferers of PTSD lies in the sanctuaries. Two examples of sanctuaries making great differences in the lives of elephants are The David Sheldrick Wildlife trust, a home and rehabilitation center for orphaned elephants, and the Elephant Sanctuary, which provides a free-ranging home for former circus, zoo, and privately-owned elephants.

The purpose of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, where most of the elephants are in their 30s and 40s and spent decades in captivity, is to provide a place to progress through the three stages of recovery: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection (Bradshaw, 2009). Founder Carol Buckley strives to create an environment where the elephants can feel completely safe, and for perhaps the first times in their lives, in control of themselves. The sanctuary is closed to the public and the elephants are free to roam about the property as they please and socialize when and with whom they prefer. Unlike in their former lives in circuses and zoos, there is no human schedule to follow at the Elephant Sanctuary. When medical intervention is necessary, the elephant is given as much time as she needs to concede to the caretakers’ wishes, but is never forced to do so. When the elephants realize they have choices, they begin to trust their human caretakers.

When the elephants at the sanctuary feel safe and in control, they can begin the process of remembrance and mourning (Bradshaw, 2009). They each do this in their own way, whether it be with a group, one special friend, or alone. Throughout the process, the elephants learn to reconnect with themselves and others in a meaningful way. The process is different for each elephant at the Elephant Sanctuary and they reach the final phase of reconnection in their own way.

The orphaned elephants cared for at the Sheldrick Trust outside of Nairobi,

Kenya may be considered lucky to arrive at this rehabilitation center as infants, young, impressionable, and without so many years of suffering to overcome. The goal of Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s foundation is to provide for the infants a trans-species “family” that mirrors an elephant family in the wild (Bradshaw, 2009). When the infants arrive, the first order of business is to treat physical wounds, provide adequate nutrition for the elephant’s age, and treat for shock. The Keepers at the trust are there for the infants twenty-four hours a day, even sleeping with them each night so that, like with their biological families, they are never alone. During the day, the orphans are encouraged to socialize and play with one another and are escorted by the Keepers on daily outings into the bush, where the Keepers act as mothers and teachers. Eventually, when an orphan is deemed physically and psychologically ready, they are released into Tsavo National Park. Here, too, the elephants go through the phases of safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection. These elephants go on to become members of wild elephant families, and many return to visit their Keepers and friends at the Sheldrick Trust.

Hope for the Future

While treatment for elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and other elephant sanctuaries around the world provide hope for those suffering from PTSD, the real goal should be prevention. Culling and poaching continue to greatly affect elephant populations and hundreds of elephants live in captivity worldwide.

Continual efforts to ban the ivory trade, punish poachers, and protect elephants in the wild are an obvious necessity. A quick Google search of “end elephant poaching” reveals tens of organizations striving to do just that. Recently, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have taken up the cause with $80 million dollars of the Clinton Global Initiative (Thorpe, 2014), Leonardo DiCaprio has donated $1 million dollars to the Elephant Crisis Fund (Leonardo DiCaprio donates… 2014), and in December 2014, Prince William of England attacked poachers saying, “Together they loot our planet, to feed mankind’s ignorant craving for pets, trinkets, cures and ornaments derived from the world’s vanishing and irreplaceable species (Johnston, 2014).” In this age of social media, these actions may result in real changes to better the situation of elephants by raising awareness and support for elephant welfare.

Evidence of elephant suffering in captivity warrants a phasing out of elephants in circuses and zoo exhibits, as well as elephant labor camps and elephants kept for religious purposes in temples in India. While zoos argue that their purpose is education and conservation, research fails to show that zoos are effective in either of these. An AZA report published in 2001 found that “no measurable educational benefits on the public has yet to be produced by zoos (Bradshaw, 2009).” A 2010 study found that “there remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors (Marino, et al., 2010).”

As governments around the world and the public strive toward an end to poaching and the ivory trade, researchers continue to gather data on elephant cognition and emotion, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and its treatment. Every new insight gained will hopefully lead to better welfare for elephants around the world, including a phasing out of elephants kept in captivity. Elephants are an awe-inspiring species whose minds and emotions are so similar to humans. It is a great tragedy that humans have caused such suffering in these incredible animals and it can only be remedied by the compassion and commitment of humans. In the past, the human-elephant relationship has been riddled with inequality and abuse, but there is a chance that the future can be much brighter for both species.

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who is the allomother of so many orphaned elephants, sums it up in this way: “We share our earth with Elephants; we care, feel and love just as they do. As highly intelligent animals who have walked this earth longer than mankind we owe it to them to protect them and speak up for them, while there is still time (2013).”

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One Shared Planet is going to the elephants!

With my big internship coming up, my dream of spending the rest of my life helping elephants is starting to come true! In the coming weeks, I’m going to post about my preparations for my overseas adventure and some of the work I’ve done in my graduate classes. The anthrozoology professors at Canisius let us make the journey our own, so I’ve written all my major papers about elephants, focusing on the traumas of captivity as much as possible. They’re a bit on the long side, but they explain why I’m dedicating my life to ending elephant captivity in the U.S. When I post, I’ll try to highlight the points that will guide you to the big picture. Comments are welcome and encouraged!

I’ll be at BLES soon! It’s really happening! (Pic borrowed from