All photos and quotations used with permission The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
It is the second day of cool weather following months and months of brutal heat and drought. Liz, Billie, and Frieda, are making the most of the October sun. They are busy with the grasses around the lower pond. Occasionally a huge cloud of dust floats into the air outside my window, an ele-dust bath is in progress.
Life at The Elephant Sanctuary has settled into a beautiful routine for the eight former circus elephants rescued in 2006, now called the Divas. Each one of them has the space, and the freedom to choose how, when, where, and with whom they spend their day.
The social lives of elephants are quite complex. When the Divas arrived they formed two groups dubbed the Fabulous Five and the Threesome (Liz, Billie and Frieda). The split into two separate groups was not a disintegration of relationships of the past but the forging of new relationships which is something these elephants had never before had the opportunity to experience. Although some of the Divas had been together as circus performers for four decades, they were never before free to forge the deep relationships typical of their species. By splitting into groups and joining others they are comfortable sharing time with, their recovery is hastened.
Liz, Frieda and Billie stay closer to home which provides them the desired security that their life as a performer did not provide. The other five explore the great expanses of the Sanctuary, free to make choices and live as their wild nature directs them.
Mornings find Frieda in the mud of the lower pond, soaking her feet, with her best friend Liz close at hand. Liz feels relaxed and safe enough to take long naps each day, knowing that Frieda is near. Billie spends many of her days at the top of the hill, where she can monitor the goings on of all the other elephants. The Sanctuary recently added corral fencing so that the Threesome can spend time together without visits from the Fabulous Five. This has allowed Billie to spend time in the valley and creek bed with her two best friends. In the late afternoon, when the Threesome wander into the barn, Billie is a squeaking, playful, impatient elephant. Excited at the thought of her evening produce and grain, she spins her tire toy and makes noise with any moveable part in the barn. I know my day is nearly at an end when the high spirited noise making begins!
The Fabulous Five are often to be found cooling down in the Upper Pond; this is one of the most frequently captured images on the Sanctuary ele-cam .
Minnie can often be seen nearly on top of Lottie, delighting both of them with the buoyancy and cooling effects of the water.
Late nights are devoted to target training with Carol, which is a positive reinforcement technique where the caregiver says a body part like “trunk” and the elephant touches their trunk to the target which is simply a ball at the end of a long pole. This makes routine medical procedures like trunk washes and blood draws, an easier procedure, with both elephant and caregiver understanding what is expected. The process is mutually respectful, which is at the core of the Sanctuary’s management philosophy.
Of course, Divas being Divas, the target training with Carol becomes somewhat of an attention competition. Minnie makes it obvious she prefers to be worked with first, because, after all….she is Minnie! Queenie and Lottie think the entire process is a blast, but it becomes a bit of a melee with all three sharing two stalls! The best part is that the entire event is a bonding process for Carol and these amazing elephants. For them to hear her soft voice, her praise, her loving touch, is nothing short of a miracle. And for Carol, seeing them reach out to her to begin a relationship of respect and love is an infinite gift.
It is amazing to recall the two difficult years spent trying to gain custody of these elephants. It seems like a lifetime ago. It certainly was for these magnificent Divas, who spent the years waiting for placement, chained in a line in a windowless barn.
For the second time as I write about the Divas, my thoughts turn to Jenny, the Sanctuary’s third elephant resident. October 17, 2007 marks the one year anniversary of her passing. We remember and honor how an elephant’s spirit can remain strong and brilliant through years of abuse. Carol speaks of the beginning of Jenny’s journey to the Sanctuary:
From that moment until her passing, Jenny continued to bless all she met. Her enthusiasm for life and adventure was contagious. She wasted no time sulking about her past, which had been seriously abusive. Instead, she lived her life as if she were free. From day one she was pure joy; playful, enthusiastic, and ready for any adventure. Tarra and Barbara were her first companions, and then Shirley arrived. What followed was nothing less than miraculous. Jenny and Shirley were united after a 23-year separation. Their recognition was documented in the award-winning PBS documentary. The Urban Elephant. Their joy was contagious, and their love for each other the beginning of the elephant family they were responsible for creating.
As I proofread this in the sun on the Q-Barn deck, the Divas trumpet and squeak, their songs ringing out over the entire valley. They are greeting Julia, (their lead caregiver) who is on her way back through the valley on her four- wheeler.
We must help them, protect them, love and respect them, but most of all look what we can learn from these amazing elephants. What gifts they bestow.