Sanctuary for all

I’ve been really touched here at BLES to see that everyone, be they elephant, human, cat, dog, or pig, is treated with the same love and respect. No one is turned away here at BLES or treated as less than. This sanctuary, formed in the memory of little Boon Lott, has helped so many animals since its inception. Just as this place is a home for elephants, a place where they can feel safe and loved, it is a home for any animal in need. It is a community of acceptance and caring built on a foundation of an incredible team of humans working together. I am so proud to be a part of it, even for a short time, and I know I will carry the spirit of BLES throughout my life. I hope someday that the sanctuary I build can be so filled with the same peace and love.

I have enjoyed seeing Wassana, free of her boot, taking full advantage of a big patch of mud, no more or less than seeing Galong return from surgery acting like a normal, vivacious puppy. I have sat in awe watching Boon Thong slowly eat her way through a banana tree and felt the same love for Lady as I sit with her while she eats to make sure not of the big dogs steal her meal.

If BLES has taught me anything, its to remember that everyone matters. Being a sanctuary is about helping who ever needs it, about spreading love and awareness for all animals. Its about being quick to help and slow to judge.


Beautiful Beyonce, a beloved member of the BLES family.


Ton, Wifi, Pizza, Gummee, Honey, and ChaCha.


Boon Thong, a lovely, peaceful lady.


Lom and Pang Tong, who trumpet with glee each morning when reunited.


Ngor (middle) getting to know Pan Suai and Pang Noi.


Ngor, a grandfatherly figure who I am drawn to for his tranquil spirit.


Katherine and Pizza watching over Lom and Pang Tong.


Wassana, the most social (with humans) elephant here at BLES, joins us under a tamarind tree.


Pang Dow stands alongside Wassana as Katherine and Phi Loy finish up her daily morning foot treatment.

Happy Valentine’s Day from BLES

Love is always in the air here at BLES. You can see it in everyone’s smiles and hear it in the elephants’ trumpets and squeaks. Time is flying by, as I soak up the positive energy and learn as much as possible.


My Valentine/easer of Odie withdrawal: Gummee.

Every day, the elephant walk is a little different. Sometimes we stay in the grassy areas as the all the eles pull up tuft after tuft, sometimes we trek to the river to watch the elephants swim.


Lom and Pang Tong heading for the shore.

Yesterday, we all sat beneath the tamarind trees, eating the fruit along with Wassana, who showered us with leaves.


Wassana: The view from below.

I’m starting to understand why David and Katherine both have a crush on Mr. Moo. He is a magnificent elephant. It is not possible to take a bad picture of him.


Moo climbs up the hill to find just the right snack.

Personally, my heart belongs to 70-year-old Ngor. It is so touching to see him walk about freely with his beloved mahout, spending his old age in peace and security.


Regal old Ngor.

BLES is a place that teaches love and respect for all species.


Wassana and Beyonce.

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).

Chôrp têe née mǎi! (I love it here!)

Permpoon following her mahout, Pee Daam.

Permpoon following her mahout, Pee Daam.

Before I left, I was told that it has been cold in Thailand. I would check the weather and it would say that the low was in the 50s, so I didn’t really think I would feel cold. I was wrong. It is “nǒw mǎhk” (very cold!) when you are riding on a motorcycle at 0730 as the sun has just begun to rise and the air is thick with moisture. Shout out to mom, who encouraged me to take a scarf, and grandma who knitted my fingerless gloves!

Throughout the morning, I’ve been slowly peeling off layers and by the afternoon its hard to believe how cold I was in the morning! Elephant walks are a highlight of every day, watching the elephants leisurely eat grass and sugarcane, pull down branches and vines, and wander about, seemingly without a care in the world.

All of these elephants have painful memories from their pasts. Some seem to have healed more than others. Many have found comfort in one another. Wassana, Pang Dow, and Lotus (Bwa Ngam) are always together and have been fondly dubbed The Gossip Girls. Pang Suai and Pang Noi are the only two elephants who share a mahout as they are never out of one another’s sight. Pang Tong (mother of Boon Lott, whose passing inspired the sanctuary) has taken ten year old Lom under her wing. Sometimes, the more senior ladies, Boon Thong, Permpoon, and Thong Dee congregate, but they also relish their alone time. Males are more solitary. I’ve finally had the great pleasure of seeing Tong Jai, who is a 70-year-old tusker in quite bad health. The only person who can work with him is Katherine’s husband Anon, who spends day and night taking care of his needs. Its always a thrill to see Mr. (Seedor) Moo, as he is the Clark Gable of BLES.

Heart-throb Mr. Moo.

Heart-throb Mr. Moo.

I’ve spent a lot of time helping with the dogs as well, my favorite of which is Gummy, as she reminds me of Odie. Winter is a sweetheart with hip displasia who loves a cuddle. I think I have the dogs to thank for my lack of homesickness.

Winter, lover of snuggles.

Winter, lover of snuggles.

I’ve been learning some Thai with David (full-time volunteer, who is amazing) and carrying around a Thai phrasebook to speak with the mahouts. Everyone is delighted when I try to speak Thai, so its great fun.

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.
  • IMG_4717

    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!

Preparations, preparations, preparations!

Preparations are well underway for the big trip- which is just a month and a few days away! I thought I’d share some of the things I’m learning/doing along the way for my first ever trip abroad. There’s a lot to be done when you leave everything behind for 9 weeks. My to do list includes:

  1. Setting all my bills to autopay, and making sure the money is in the bank account to cover it!
  2. I’ll be removing about $200 cash from the bank in smaller bills to hide amongst my luggage. Apparently, if you’re in a bind, U.S. dollars will help you out, no matter what country. Of course, I will also get some cash from the exchange as well.
  3. Stocking up two months worth of everything I’ll need: shampoo, soap, facewash (all bars as they are easier to travel with than liquid), prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, contact lenses, sunscreen…
  4. Making sure my dog is taken care of, plenty of food and snacks to last the two months, instructions for caregivers, a letter that authorizes them to seek medical treatment.
  5. Visas! I’ve got my visa for India and am about to send off the paperwork to get one for Thailand. Something I didn’t know: this involves sending your ACTUAL PASSPORT so you have to do one at a time.
  6. Making my list of donors getting gifts and postcards and gathering their addresses. A well-travelled friend suggested printing address labels for everyone prior to leaving. Then I just have to stick them on and fill in a note.
  7. Starting to pack: I got some nice wicking shirts, a sunhat with SPF, and some cargo capris for Christmas from my grandmother, a universal charger from my mom, and some good journals. The aforementioned well-travelled friends suggested I carry a small notebook and make notes each day of what I did, who I met, phrases I learned, et cetera. So when I’m too tired to make blog posts until a few days later, I won’t forget any of the details!
  8. I’ve requested an absentee ballot for the primaries as they are on March 1st. (Bernie!!)
  9. I’m in talks with the folks in India to work out housing and other details of my trip there, I’ll be buying the ticket from Thailand to India soon.

If you want to be one of the lucky ducks on my gift list, make a $150 or more donation at Postcards are pretty great too, and I’ll send you one if you make a $25 or more donation.

Captive Elephant Welfare

I wrote this paper for Malini Suchak’s Animal Welfare class in spring 2015. It is all about creating sanctuary for elephants, and is the basis for what I want to do. (Sorry about the formatting!)

Captive Elephant Welfare:

Creating the Ideal Sanctuary for Former Zoo Elephants

There are currently almost 300 elephants living in 78 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions in the United States (Soltis & Brown, 2010). According to AZA, the elephants living in the United States are essential for conservation because they provide research and education opportunities and serve as “ambassadors for their wild counterparts and the wild habitats in which they live (AZA and Elephants, 2014).” The elephants are cared for in accordance to AZA’s Animal Care and Management standards. Though AZA claims that the standards are rigorous and science-based (AZA and elephants, 2014), others in the animal welfare community are not satisfied with the state of captive elephants in American zoos. Elephant welfare advocates have two main concerns for zoo elephants: a.) Zoos cannot provide adequate space, and b.) Zoos fail to create and maintain proper elephant groups (Cohn, 2006). Animal protection organizations are campaigning for public support against elephants and zoos and even pushing for legislation to remove elephants from zoos (Carlstead, Mench, Meehan, & Brown, 2013).

Whether or not legislation is enacted in the future, some zoos have responded to public pressure and have phased out, or are in the process of phasing out, their elephant exhibits (Cohn, 2006). In some cases, the exhibits are closing prior to the death of the elephants housed there, creating a need for elephant sanctuaries in the United States. These elephant sanctuaries should strive to provide a home for “retired” elephants that is more conducive to good welfare than their former institutions.

 Animal welfare: Definition and measurements

Mason and Veasey (2010) write that welfare refers to “an animal’s affective… state: what it feels”, both physically and emotionally. Fraser (2008, 229-232) describes three criteria that make up welfare: 1.) Basic health and functioning, 2) Affective states, and 3.) Natural living. A balance of all three is needed to achieve truly good welfare.

Basic health and functioning can be assessed based on measures such as morbidity, reproduction, and disease prevalence, and may be the easiest criteria to evaluate.

Measuring affective states involves looking at both physical and behavioral patterns. Certain chemicals and neurotransmitters are released in the body in response to stress or other affective states, which lead to physiological signs such as increased heart rate and pupil dilation. Preference and avoidance behaviors and cognitive bias (which indicates states of optimism or pessimism), along with signals between conspecifics, are also helpful in deciphering affective states. The presence of stereotypic behavior is sometimes seen in captive elephant populations and can indicate poor affective states (Mason & Veasey, 2009).

Natural living is thought to promote good welfare by providing an environment that allows animals to “live in accordance with their adaptations” (Fraser, 2008, 232). To achieve good welfare by this criteria, the environment, activity schedules, behaviors exhibited, and social groupings should be comparable to those seen in the wild.

Carlstead, et al. (2013) developed a framework of seven welfare principles for captive elephants that fall into the three criteria. These principles can help to further clarify the definition of good welfare in captive elephants.

Under basic health and functioning (which these authors call “physical well being and comfort), they list:

“1. Feeding and avoiding obesity

  1. Freedom of movement to seek physical comfort
  2. Optimal health.”


To meet the natural living criteria (termed “engagement with environment”), the authors listed:

“4. Species-appropriate social behaviors,

  1. Species-appropriate nonsocial behaviors
  2. Good human-elephant relationships”

The seventh principle serves to meet the affective states criteria (or “positive psychological state”).

“7. Avoidance of negative emotions (e.g., fear, frustration and apathy) and experience of positive emotions (security, contentment)” (Carlstead, et al., 2013).

Carlstead, et al. (2013) also proposed indicators and data collection methods that are to be used to carry out a multi-institutional epidemiological research project called The Elephant Welfare Project. This study could prove to be extremely useful in improving captive elephant welfare in the United States in both zoo and sanctuary settings.

Although the following will be far from a complete review of elephant welfare needs, research will be presented on some of the prevalent themes within each of the three criteria. Furthermore, ideas for creating an “ideal” elephant sanctuary by meeting the framework described by Carlstead, et al. (2013) will be presented.

Elephant Welfare: Creating a sanctuary

Natural living provides great insight into the two other criteria of basic health and functioning and affective states in elephants, making it difficult to talk about the three criteria separately. Therefore, the following sections will discuss basic health and functioning and affective states in relation to natural living. It is critical to understand elephants’ natural habitat, behaviors, and family structure in order to begin conceptualizing a captive living environment that fosters good welfare.

I. Natural living and basic health and functioning

a. Feeding and roaming behaviors. Elephants live in a variety of habitats in the wild: deserts, grassland, swampland, seasonal forests, tropical forests, and moorlands. Sufficient water is the most important aspect for elephants in the wild. They are adaptive to various seasons and locations, but the intelligence that stems from this need to be flexible also leads to greater suffering when the environment is inappropriate (Veasey, 2006). Elephants in the wild spend 60%- 80% of their time foraging for food. In captive settings where diet is simply presented to the elephants, the food is consumed very quickly, which leaves large amounts of time each day unfilled (Veasey, 2006).

While amount of daily roaming in wild populations varies depending on factors such as food, water, and mates, it is known that elephants sometimes roam up to 50 miles per day (Hutchins, 2006). AZA guidelines require a minimum of 5,400 square feet per elephant (AZA Standards, 2011), which calculates out to about eight elephants per acre. Leslie Schobert, former general curator at Los Angeles Zoo, believes that elephants should have at least 100 acres in which to roam (Cohn, 2006.)

Appropriate sites for a sanctuary can be found in most of the United States as elephants are adaptive to various terrains. Patricia Derby, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, suggests that elephants not be exposed to freezing temperatures (Cohn, 2006). Taking the advice of Derby and Schobert, the ideal American elephant sanctuary would consist of at least 100 acres of land located in one of the southernmost states. Some or all of the elephants’ daily diets should be distributed throughout the sanctuary to allow for roaming and foraging activity. Elephants may be given the opportunity to participate in staff-led walks each day to increase movement but will not be required to do so. In this way, the sanctuary will be striving to meet several of the principles laid out by Carlstead, et al. (2013): 1. Feeding and avoiding obesity, 2. Freedom of movement to seek physical comfort, and 5. Species-appropriate nonsocial behaviors.

b. Disease, Reproduction, and Morbidity. To address Carlstead, et al.’s (2013) third principle, optimal health, disease prevalence, reproduction, and mortality must be addressed. Diseases in captive elephant populations include herpes viruses, tuberculosis, and arterial disease; however, all of these diseases are seen in wild populations as well (Hutchins, 2006). The most oft cited physical ailments in captive elephants are foot problems. Fifty percent of captive elephants will suffer from foot problems at some point in their lifetime. The elephant foot is uniquely designed to support the largest land mammal, who range from 7,920-pound Asian females to 13,200-pound African males. Foot problems in captive populations are generally thought to be effects of lack of exercise, standing for extended periods on hard surfaces, and contamination from unsanitary enclosures (Csuti, Sargent, & Bechert, 2001). Neglect and lack of wear of elephant feet can lead to a number of foot lesions. Fourteen types of lesions were documented by Sarma, Thomas, Gogoi, Sarma, & Sarma (2012) in a study of captive Asian elephants in India, with the top three being overgrown nails, overgrown cuticles, split nails, cracked soles, and pitted soles. Multiple strands of bacteria and fungi were found in the foot lesions. Although a similar study is not available for captive elephants in the U.S., it is still clear that foot problems can be a major welfare issue if left unaddressed.

Encouraging the elephants in the sanctuary to roam, as discussed above, can help to decrease the risk of foot problems. The elephants would be free to move about at all times, never enclosed indoors, and no concrete or other hard substrates will be present on any part of the property. Indoor enclosures and highly frequented areas will be cleaned of feces daily (as suggested by AZA Standards, 2011) or twice daily, if needed. At least one member of the staff should be highly trained in elephant foot care. AZA Standard (2011) requires AZA institutions to clean and inspect elephants’ feet daily. As will be discussed later, elephants will never be forced to participate in human contact unless veterinary care is expressly needed. The hope in this case is that steps taken to provide adequate exercise and assure clean, soft surfaces for walking and standing will prevent most foot problems from occurring. Staff should attempt to assess the feet of each elephant by sight alone and by observing the elephants’ behaviors.

It is well documented that captive elephant populations have lower rates of reproductive success than their wild counterparts. One study, which included almost 140 female elephants residing in AZA institutions, found that over one-third of the participants did not have normal ovarian cycles (Carlstead, et al., 2013). Premature cell aging, occurrences of ovarian cysts, male infertility, and low libido further contribute to low conception rates (Clubb, Rowcliffe, Lee, Mar, Moss, & Mason, 2009). Both infant mortality rates and first year mortalities are approximately 40 percent. These rates are most likely related to health problems associated with obesity and infant neglect and infanticide due to maternal stress. Clubb, et al. (2009) reported that, due to these factors, North American captive elephant populations are not self-sustaining.

The purpose of the proposed sanctuaries is to give the currently captive elephants in the U.S. a place to retire comfortably. No purposeful breeding will occur and bulls and cows will be kept in separate areas of the sanctuary to prevent breeding. Fertility testing including, but not limited to, blood tests and transrectal ultrasound are unnecessary and invasive and will not be performed. Therefore, reproductive status and success will not used to assess welfare in sanctuary elephants.

Finally, morbidity in comparison to the rates seen in wild counterparts is a significant measure of animal welfare. Three research articles related to morbidity were reviewed, and the information presented was sometimes contradictory. Veasey (2006) reported the data of a 2003 study by Clubb and Mason that claimed captive elephant life expectancy is 21 years for Asian elephants and 18 years for African elephants. Veasey then referred to a report by Wiese and Willis (2004) that disputed these claims. Wiese and Willis (2004) revealed that Clubb and Mason had used only data from deceased captive elephants, which greatly skewed the numbers. Incorporating the data of captive elephants still living, Wiese and Willis (2004) calculated captive average life expectancy to be 44.8 years for Asian elephants and 33.0 years for African elephants in North America. In 2008, Clubb, Rowcliffe, Lee, Mar, Moss, & Mason, stated that zoo-born African elephant median lifespans are 16.9 years and zoo-born Asian elephants median lifespans are 18.9 years, compared to 56 years and 41.7 years in respective wild counterparts. They also found that zoo-born elephants had lower survivorship rates than wild-born conspecifics. Poor survivorship, as with high infant mortality rates, are thought to be caused by stress and obesity (Clubb, et al., 2008).

The conflicting data about captive elephant mortality makes it difficult to use it as a welfare measure. As average lifespan and longevity are often used in the press to describe welfare (Wiese & Willis, 2004), it is likely that sanctuaries will be assessed in this way. As the sanctuary is dedicated to providing ideal animal welfare, veterinary care will be used as needed, but perhaps to a lesser degree than seen in other captive habitats. This is because of the desire to keep stress levels low and allow for autonomy in sanctuary elephants. When invasive veterinary care or assistance in dignified death might be needed, a board of several staff members will meet to make an ethical decision about what is best for the overall welfare and quality of life of the elephant.

II. Natural Living and Affective States

a. Kinship groups. Elephants are highly social animals. In the wild, the females and

calves live in a hierarchical society, led by the matriarch, one of the oldest females in the group. Infants are suckled for five years. Females stay with the herd for life and males leave the group when they are sexually mature between the ages of twelve and fifteen, to seek mates (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009). A normal herd is made up of nine to eleven females and calves, but in some cases herds can be as large as forty members. At times, family groups congregate to form clans of up to 100 (Veasey, 2006). Males may be solitary or travel in groups of two to four (Irie & Hasegawa).

Social ties are indispensable to elephants. They are able to discriminate other individuals by using visual, vocal, and tactile clues. It is thought that vocalization is key in these bonds (Irie & Hasegawa, 2006). In nature, group sizes vary, making it hard to set a standard for minimum group size. According to Hutchins (2006), AZA standards require that females be housed in groups of at least three. However, under the heading of “Group Size”,the current AZA Standards (2011) state: “More research is needed to develop guidelines for this section.” Critics argue for groups with greater than five members (Hutchins, 2006). Ideally, these groups would be made up of related members, but this is highly improbably in North American elephants (Veasey, 2006). Hutchins (2006) writes, “Group compatibility may be a more important factor than group size per se. An elephant maintained in a smaller, but compatible group may, in fact, be better off than one in a larger, incompatible group.”

In zoos around the world, 48% of elephants are living in groups of fewer than five, and 60% of elephants are in groups of less than four. Social interaction between captive elephants is the main form of enrichment in their lives and is required to develop normal behavior patterns. Elephants are known to form strong friendships with specific conspecifics. When zoos move elephants around, it causes stress to both the elephant who is moved and the members of her new group, but when the new group is a good fit, the stress is usually not severe (Rees, 2009).

It will take time to form appropriate groups in the sanctuary and there may be trial and error involved. Upon moving to the sanctuary, elephants will not be moved geographically again, but a need may arise for partitions between different groups. Male elephants may need to be kept separate to prevent both conception and stress to female elephants, as it is abnormal to have a mature male present year-round in the wild. Elephants that arrive together from a zoo will not be separated and existing and new friendship bonds will be nurtured and protected by sanctuary staff.

b. Day and Night Activity. In the wild, non-foraging alert hours of an elephants day are used for social interactions, such as play, and behaviors related to self-maintenance, such as bathing or dusting. They engage in these behaviors throughout a 24-hour period. In zoos, elephants are often enclosed indoors at night and sometimes during the day depending on regional climate, enclosure design, and keeper practices. This can hinder their ability to engage in natural social and nonsocial behaviors throughout the day (Horback, Miller, Andrews, & Kuczaj, 2014).

In the sanctuary setting, elephants will be free to come and go from any indoor enclosures at all times of day. In this way, they can carry out social and nonsocial behaviors when and where they choose to do so. The only cases in which an elephant is enclosed indoors would be \related to health problems that require rest for the elephant and intense monitoring by staff.

By forming and maintaining appropriate kinship groups and allowing for round-the-clock activities, the sanctuary will meet Principle 4 proposed by Carlstead, et al. (2013): Species-appropriate social behaviors. These practices will also contribute to the principle 7: Avoidance of negative emotions and experience of positive emotions.

III. Affective States

Creating positive welfare in relation to affective states requires some further aspects that fall outside the criteria of natural living. There are several facets of captive elephant life that are directly related to their captive status and the involvement of humans in their lives.

a. Visitors. A zoo is defined as a “parklike [sic] area in which live animals are kept in cages or large enclosures for public exhibition” (zoo, n.d.) The AZA claims that zoos offer “society the opportunity to develop unparalleled personal connections with the animals in their care (Conservation, 2014).” AZA-accredited zoos attract over 175 million visitors annually (Visitor Demographics, 2014) meaning that elephant kept in zoos are the subjects of human viewers every day.

Although elephants in particular have not been studied, Davey (2007) reviewed thirty papers detailing the effects of visitors on the welfare of a number of species. While none of the studies showed that visitors had positive effects on the animals, fourteen of the studies discovered that visitors had stressful or negative effects. Of these fourteen studies, thirteen involved primates, who, like elephants, are known to be highly intelligent (Davey, 2007). Veasey (2006) writes that high levels of intelligence and self-awareness, which elephants have, can also make the animal more susceptible to suffering and stress. Although a zoo may do well at reducing the most obviously stressful visitor behaviors such as shouting and throwing things, the studies reviewed by Davey (2007) showed that “the mere presence and typical activities of visitors at exhibits [are associated] behavioral and physiological changes in captive animals.” Though the review didn’t include studies on elephants, it is likely they too experience a decrease in welfare related to zoo visitors.

Bradshaw, Smuts, and Durham (2010) write that the dominant society of today assumes a “right to sight” when it comes to nonhuman animals. This notion has very negative connotations.


“Presuming the right to visual possession comprises the first step in the process of objectification and hence any fate that objectification permits, including physical possession and death. Denial of subjectivity is the denial of the right to life itself. Animals held captive epitomize this process (Bradshaw, et al., 2010).”


They hold that this human mindset is disruptive and harmful for captive animals, as well as wildlife that are subjected to viewing by ecotourists. The sanctuary setting should allow elephants to be relatively free from human viewing. The public will not have access to the grounds and interaction with staff should be elephant-directed. Except for cases where veterinary care is imperative, the elephants should be free to contact or not contact human staff as they choose. The size of the sanctuary should allow for areas where elephants can be undisturbed and out-of-sight of humans and human structures.

b. Trauma. Many, and perhaps all, zoo elephants have experienced significant trauma in their lives. Possible traumatic events include capture, premature removal from mother, and mistreatment by keepers. Animals, like humans, who experience trauma early in life can experience problems with psychological development and display impaired adult behaviors (Shannon, Slotow, Durant, Syialel, Pool, Moss, & McComb, 2013). Captivity itself, which involves the inability to escape from unpleasant events or circumstances, causes trauma (Bradshaw, 2009, 150). Traumatized elephants exhibit strikingly similar behaviors to traumatized humans, and in several cases have met the criteria laid out for humans in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Bradshaw, 2009, 81-86, 95-114).

As in humans, recovering from trauma and PTSD requires the elephant to pass through three phases: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection (Bradshaw, 2009, 161). To assist with the first phase of safety, sanctuaries should provide a safe place and allow the restoration of a sense of control over mind and body in the elephants. This is why recommendations above often give elephants the freedom to make choices.

As described by Zuckerman (2013, unpublished):

“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…and they reach the final phase of reconnection in their own way.”

A full discussion of PTSD in is not within the scope of this paper and interested readers should refer to Gay Bradshaw’s book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity (2009) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Elephants by Cari Zuckerman (2013, unpublished, available upon request).

c. Free will. Even in cases where an elephant does not appear to be suffering from past traumatic experiences, it is important to allow them to practice free will in their daily activities and interactions. According to Veasey (2006), “Animals denied choice and control over their surroundings are likely to suffer a reduction in welfare…” Control over mind and body is something that is certainly lacking in many zoo settings. Allowing elephants to have free will is perhaps the most imperative principle for sanctuaries to uphold.

Allowing free will, prohibiting public viewing, and providing necessary therapeutic assistance to elephants suffering from past traumas will serve to meet the remaining principles of Carlstead, et al.’s (2013) framework. These are principle 6: Good human-elephant relationships, and principle 7: Avoidance of negative emotions and experience of positive emotions.


While this paper covers some of the dominant welfare issues that elephants face in captivity, it is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the subject. Some of the basic cornerstones of creating an elephant sanctuary are laid out above but a thorough set of guidelines would need to be established for such an institution. The AZA Standards for Elephant Care and Management could serve as a template to create those guidelines, which would be flexible and in constant revision as new studies contribute to what is known about elephant welfare, or certain guidelines prove to be inadequate for the specific population at the sanctuary.

A dedicated staff would be essential to creating and maintaining the utmost welfare for the elephants in the sanctuary’s care. Whether or not the elephants choose to interact with them, staff will be tasked with becoming intimately familiar with each individual elephant’s temperament, behaviors, preferences, and needs. In this way, problems that arise will be quickly identified and appropriate action can be taken.

Above all, the sanctuary should be committed to the welfare of each individual elephant. Every elephant has a history and an identity, and this should be respected. Personal identities, friendships, and the elephants’ senses of security and autonomy should be carefully protected and nurtured every day.


AZA and elephants. (2014). Retrieved from

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Billy, photo by Catherine Doyle, borrowed from this article:

Billy, photo by Catherine Doyle, borrowed from this article:

Billy is a male elephant who has been held captive at L.A. Zoo for almost all of his 30 years. He is suffering greatly, as indicated by the stereotypic motions that he makes all day. This week, after talking with my mentor Gay Bradshaw, and her friend Kiersten Cluster, I have decided, with Billy as my inspiration, to make my sanctuary a place for male elephants like Billy.

Kiersten founded this campaign to help Billy and the two female elephants at the L.A. Zoo. The petition calls for their release to sanctuary. However, Billy doesn’t really have a spot at a sanctuary. Males have special needs and can create new problems in sanctuaries that are home to female elephants. So I’m going to create a place just for Billy and other male elephants in need.

As Kiersten and others continue the fight for Billy’s release, I’ll be gathering as much knowledge as possible at BLES and in India about how to make a safe and healing environment for male elephants.

Please, take a minute to sign the campaign to release the elephants at L.A. Zoo. If you have a few bucks to spare to help me on my journey, visit my GoFundMe page.

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