What is a Sanctuary?
A Sanctuary is a place where something is protected or given shelter. To protect something means to keep it safe. But protection is also about being respectful and caring and making sure that the way safety is provided is thoughful about the needs of what, or who is being protected.
Elephants that have been living in zoos, circuses and other human-designed environments can't return to the wild. To have the best non-wild life they can, these elephants need a team of caring and knowledgable people to provide food, shelter and veterinary care. They also need a complex environment with LOTS of space to move around and explore, the companionship of other elephants, and the freedom to choose how they spend their time.
From "An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants" by Lisa Kane, JD:
"PAWS’ ARK 2000 in San Andreas, Calif., and The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwalk, Tenn., have offered to accept Chai [and] Bamboo...and provide for their lifetime care at no cost to the Zoo or the taxpayers of Seattle. Both Sanctuaries share important features:
•Both are led by knowledgeable, experienced individuals committed to excellence in animal welfare
•Both sanctuaries are committed to providing spacious, complex, natural environments where their resident elephants are free to roam and socialize (or not) in the company of other elephants
•Both sanctuaries are home to social groups of Asian and African elephants
•Both sanctuaries are located in warm, elephant–friendly climates with a long, extended growing season
•Both sanctuaries manage their elephants in protected contact
•Both sanctuaries run programs that exceed core requirements of AZA's Elephant Management Guidelines
Between the two facilities, eight AZA–accredited zoos have retired elephants to them.*
Circuses and non-AZA accredited zoos have retired elephants to both sanctuaries as well."
*As of 2011
Zoo Elephant Behavior
Sanctuary Elephant Behavior
Chai's repetitive rocking is a way of coping with stress, trauma, boredom and confinement.
Ronnie and Debbie playing together in a rainstorm at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Now that's a dance party!
"While many zoos do an excellent job of caring for wild animals and contributing to their conservation, there are some species, like elephants, which will always be unsuited to zoo environments" -Dr. Jane Goodall
Scott Blais, co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary in TN, speaking about founding the Sanctuary. This is our transcription of what Scott said in an interview with Duncan Strauss. We highly reccomend that you listen to the full interview:
“We set out to give elephants their life back…to create a space where they can live with others of their own kind...where they can make their own choices of where they go, when they go there...where most of their diet comes from natural forage...to encourage natural behavior and natural social structure. Doing this…it’s a challenge with captive elephants. We are essentially putting a bunch of elephants that are completely unrelated together and saying “okay, here’s your family now” and it’s the same thing that happens in zoos where you put 3 or 4 elephants together -- The difference with a sanctuary is now they have enough space that they can choose where they go, they can choose who they hang out with. When you are in a small space, you’re kind of stuck…forced to be roommates and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work, it can be catastrophic. In a small environment, there’s nowhere to flee to. In a large space they have the opportunity to walk away, and keep walking away…We started off with 100 acres and realized, that wasn’t enough…We are often asked “how many acres per elephant does it require to sustain them?” To sustain their diet, maybe 10-20 acres per elephant; but when you talk about the social needs and the psychological needs, we don’t have a number on that.”
…Once the group of elephants was allowed onto the 2200 acres corridor [at The Elephant Sanctuary]…they thrived. They started wandering off and we saw another layer of growth and development with them that was just exponential…The Sanctuary was created to create a life where elephants can just be elephants.
(In the wild) “Intimate family groups tend to be all related individuals. It’s mother, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, young males…if a female is born into a herd, they are there for their entire lives. They form very, very strong, very close bonds. It is in their nature to do so…In captivity, to try to re-create that…it’s challenging.
We kept our minds open to the elephants. We wanted to see what their needs were. We went into it with this concept of 100 acres is enormous…we may let them all free and they are all going to become rogue and wild. We saw exactly the opposite. One: 100 acres isn’t enormous to an elephant and Two: we saw once they had the space, once they had the freedom and autonomy, they became much more placid, they became much more co-operative…that doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles involved…but generally speaking elephants will thrive when you give them that much space. So in opening up our minds to elephants in that way we learned…how much we discredit them and don’t do them justice, not only with their spatial limitations but also the psychological and emotional limitations that…constrain an elephant’s life. …what we do to them in captivity is…contradictory to what we say about them. Giving them more space allows them to become their full selves. I think until you have the opportunity to see that, you don’t fully comprehend what that means.
It is still a managed operation, it is just managed with significantly more freedom and autonomy.
-Scott Blais interviewed by Duncan Strauss on "Talking Animals," October 30, 2013
“The zoo is teaching us to like elephants, but they aren’t teaching us to understand them. If we don’t understand elephants, we don’t really know how to help them. Kids learn from what they see. And if what we see is that elephants are in zoos, then we learn it’s ok for elephants to be in a small space being stared at by humans. Kids are learning that elephants don’t need the wild to exist.” -Stella, Age 8
There are two accredited Elephant Sanctuaries in the US
Typical interactions between Bamboo (left) and Chai at WPZ.
Most people will never have the opportunity to witness firsthand the emotional healing that occurs at sanctuary and honestly, we can never fully do it justice when trying to put it into words. For some elephants, sanctuary is a rebirth; they walk off of the transport truck and are changed forever, for others it is a lifelong process requiring an active and honest effort on their part. The depth and gravity of psychological damage that occurs in captivity is not only severe but its true extent is something that wasn’t even altogether realized until we actually witnessed them recovering in sanctuary. To watch the growth and struggles as they rediscover who they genuinely are and learn to trust in themselves, other elephants, and humans again is both magnificent and heartbreaking at the same time. In the most basic sense, sanctuary is about giving elephants space and a more natural life, but the core of it all is about giving back something much more significant: themselves.
“When we return wild animals to nature, we merely return them to what is already theirs. For man cannot give wild animals freedom, they can only take it away” –Jaques Cousteau