Elephants, Trauma and the Ego

By ego, I mean egoism. As in: I own that elephant, she is mine. No, actually, she is not yours, nor does she belong to anyone but herself. So the idea of keeping an animal like that (of course I also believe this applies to any animal) in captivity is a crime against the nature of the elephant, and against nature herself.

When anyone tells you that an animal “loves” to be in captivity, ask them why, then, is it necessary to have fences, cages, closed spaces from which the animal cannot escape to freedom. Dogs and cats are about the only two species, among all the others, domesticated or not, who choose to stay with u

s (dogs because they are nature’s therapists and cats for mysterious reasons that nobody understands). Parrots need to have their bodies mutilated; horses kept locked in, and of course the so-called farm animals are there purely to be exploited.

One exception to all this: sanctuaries. Farm Sanctuary, Animal Place, any of the hundreds of places that take in abused animals, or unwanted animals, or injured animals, or escaped animals, and gives them a permanent home where they need never fear being exploited for their milk, their eggs, their skin, or their meat. Or, as in the case of elephants, their entertainment value (often wrongly stated as “educational value” – which always reminds me of the ridiculous notion that we learned about elephant lives by reading the accounts of the great white hunters).

I am sure that everyone who reads this blog will have seen the video (it went viral) of Bella the dog, with Tarra, the eleph

ant. If you have not seen it, here it is: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4696315n

What I loved about this sanctuary is that it was the opposite of a zoo. Not only did the elephants have woods and streams and ponds and rivers to wander through (more than 2000 acres!), the public was not cordially invited to gape and throw popcorn at the elephants (but observation cameras allowed people to view online the real lives of real elephants). They lived, for animals not in their own environment, as close to a natural life as we can ever expect to see. It was truly an inspiration. The sanctuary was for the elephants, not for us.

The cofounder of this remarkable and wonderful elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee is Carol Buckley. From reading what she writes on her blog, and from watching her and from friends who know her well (I have never met her) I feel safe to say she knows an enormous amount about elephants, and how to keep them happy after a life where they suffered anything from beatings to solitary confinement to absolute loneliness. She formed as close a bond with Tarra, as probably any human has ever had, over the 30 years they were together.

Last year they were forcibly separated. From reasons I simply cannot fathom, not only was Carol Buckley removed as the CEO of this sanctuary, but she was forbidden to visit her old friend Tarra. I have no way of judging the merit of the case against her, but whatever it was, it makes no sense to deprive two beings as close as Tarra and Carol, of each other’s company. It is an outrage against both of them, and I find it unforgiveable.

Because Carol was one of the few people who are aware of the depths of animal suffering. The other is her colleague Gay Bradshaw. Gay is the director of the Kerulos Center in Jacksonville Oregon. She has written a book, Elephants on the Edge that has been one of the great reading experiences of my life. (I am re-reading it right now). I will not go into detail on what she found, because you need to read the book for yourself. Or at least read the fine article about her and her research that was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine a few years ago, An Elephant Crackup? by Charles Siebert http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant

Nothing I have read in the last while got me thinking on such a different level as this book did, for it raised the possibility that every time we see animals behaving in an odd fashion, that is, contrary to what we have come to expect, we should bear in mind the possibility that what we are seeing is the result of some trauma inflicted, almost invariably, by humans. So the adolescent male elephants Gay was studying had uncharacteristically raped and killed rhinos in southern Africa. Why? Because, she discovered, they had watched in horror as their mothers were murdered in front of their eyes and grew up in a society without elephant mentors, male and female. So they became bad boys, just like our bad bozys. When I heard about dolphins in San Francisco killing harbor porpoises, Gay wrote to me about how we had degraded their environment, polluted it, poisoned it, and this was the result. It makes perfect sense. Grizzlies, too. The theory has wide and far-reaching implications. It is a deep theory, and I love her for thinking of it. It has having a profound influence on many other animal scientists, all to the good.

While I cannot know what went on inside Elephant Sanctuary, I do know that those traumatized elephants cannot possibly welcome the loss of their closest human companion. It is a tragedy that the people now responsible for the Sanctuary cannot see this and cannot put the elephants before their own interests, whatever they may be. I understand that elephants can be dangerous, and that many zoos do not allow direct contact, even with the caregiver. But we have created this situation, and Carol does her best to remedy it. She was able to interact with the elephants in her sanctuary without fear and without danger, because they knew she meant them no harm. One thing is perfectly clear to me and must have been to them as well; whatever Carol did she always put the elephants first. This is no small feat in our anthropocentric world, and I salute her for it.

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My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608196159/ or the eBook http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608199914/
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8 Responses to Elephants, Trauma and the Ego

  1. patricia Bialik says:

    Many people say they own dogs and cats and birds and maybe an elephant. What they mean is they are their family and part of their life. I met Carol when Tarra was a baby. I am saying I saw the elephant bonding a different way than most elephants. At home with Carol, a dog and bird as her family. Because of this bonding and the intelliget mind of elephants Tarra bonded differently then the other elephants who paired up with other elephants at the sanctuary, Tarra picked a dog for her best friend and I am sure it was early conditioning that I witnessed.when she was baby Tarra. I am pointing this out in my own petition, because I feel what the sanctuary is proving is their best interest is selfish and abusive to Tarra and also Carol. Elephant abuse! I read where those now in authority have said elephants don;t need other elephants. Are you kiding me! Only another elephant truely knows how an elephant thinks. They need to stop trying to think like elephants.and think humanely! Torra demonstrated she would rather have a dog friend as BFF that ended to soon for poor Tarra and she needs Carol to come back and assure her she did not abandon her also. It just don’t take a rocket scientest to see that the intentions of the new authority of The Elephant Sanctuary are not motivated by the love of Elephants! This is just cruel. Two petitions are circulating that I know of…1. has 829 world wide signature in support of Carol and Tarra. Mine just started and I got 130. I am happy with playing a small part for a good cause. Carol sent me an email. Not an ounce of hate in her heart and says she wants to see Tarra when ever Tarra wants. Thank You, ,Patricia Bialik .

    • Patty Bowers says:

      Hi Patricia,
      I would be interested if you know of a better place for Tarra than the Elephant Sanctuary?
      Personally, I think it is the BEST and most natural place in this country for elies that have been abused. Like Jeffrey says, they get to live a life as CLOSE TO a natural elie life in the wild. Certainly it is WAY better than Anything all of those elies have come from. They get to browse, migrate, roll in mud wallows, eat naturally for the most part, play in lakes & with each other, have plenty of food and treats and are not bothered by humans except when necessary for the water truck or other incidentals. Do you think they can be flown back to Africa or Asia and released? (FAR too much trauma for them to be flown and possibly deadly). There is not enough food or range for them any more in those countries and many are put to begging in downtown Bangkok and other unnatural situations, not to mention they probably do not know how to survive on their own, having been ripped from their mothers at an early age. And what about the DROUGHTS, etc. in Africa….? .I believe they are in elie heaven at the Elephant Sanctuary. I peronally do not care if the elie Sanctuary is a business, because they are providing the best care and environment possible for these abused animals. I cannot imagine a better situation for them, given the elephants pasts. Thank you.
      Patty Bowers
      Polson, Montana

      • Patty Bowers says:

        P.S. You never see an elephant ALONE in the wild, unless it is sick, dying, etc. Elephants are HERD animals and DO NEED other elephants. They have taught us that by their example in the wilds, throughout history. Other elephants will do everything they can to help a dying or sick elephant but after a while they have to move on or they would starve. I have seen videos of elephants dragging baby elies out of a mud hole and adult elies too, but when they can’t the survival instinct kicks in and they move on to where there is food and water. Thank God for this or we wouldn’t HAVE any elies.

  2. Patty Bowers says:

    OMG Jeffrey!
    THANK YOU for this most excellent article which I could have written myself! You have nailed it on the head about the Elephant Sanctuary in Tenn., 1 of my most fave orgs, and also your illuminations about the plight of captured animals and abused animals. BTW, check out the Kendrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya that so tenderly and exquisitely cares for orphaned baby elies and then returns them to the wild when they are capable of surviving and thriving. Their guardians cover them w/ blankets at nite and sleep with them to try to help heal the horrific damage that seeing their mothers murdered has inflicted on them, and other traumas they have suffered. What people will do for GREED is unbelievable. Elephants are a particular favorite of mine, due to their intelligence and compassion to adopt a baby that does not belong to them. Most orphaned animals in the wild will die because of predation and no adoption by one of their own. Not elephants, they will often be adopted by other elies!
    I believe ANY bizarre and much different behavior by animals is due to some emotional trauma, it just comes out “sideways” as they don’t know how to deal with it. This is why elephants in circuses kill their trainers or go on rampages when they break out of the circues, etc….the Sea World incident, as mentioned in my comments after your “BEARS R US” blog, etc. Even a viscious chained dog is because of the overwhelming emotional damage done to them from yrs. of that totally cruel and unnatural state they have been imprisoned in. Those puppies did not come into the world mean and viscious! It is because of our negative and heartless interfering! We live in quite an ignorant world when it comes to people understanding animals in depth, especially their emotional makeup and needs. (I loved your bk. “When Elephants Weep” and gave copies of it to friends). We need to educate, educate, educate as much as possible! We need an informed, enlightened and compassionate world of people to STOP these countless abuses on ALL animals. PETA does an excellent job of education and closing down animal laboratory testings and many other large abuses of animals en masse. I feel that EACH of us has a responsibillity to educate our friends, families and acquaintances whenever we have a chance. There is much info out there in leaflet forms (from PETA, ASPCA, etc.) that we can share. I leaflet everywhere I go~ hotels, Drs. offices, cars, businesses, mailboxes, and every bill I pay and mail has a leaflet in it! It’s so easy. I challenge all readers to take a step for animals and start talking to others and educate them when they get a chance. You will be suprised how often even the most basic things about animals emotional and physical needs are not understood by even some very otherwise compassionate people. They are often happy to be informed too!
    For the animals,
    Patty Bowers
    Polson, Montana USA

  3. Debbie Emory-Utzig says:

    Thank you Jeffrey for this article. Tarra has had so much pain the last few years: being banned from her closest life companion, Carol; the changed policy of “protected contact” at The Elephant Sanctuary where she is no longer physically able to reach out and touch humans/caregivers unless through bars (elephants, especially Tarra, touch EVERYTHING); and now the loss of her buddy, Bella. For those who have not met an elephant before, this would be even more severe than all of the sudden not allowing your dog or cat to come near you anymore – unless they were behind bars. If you have seen Carol interact with not just Tarra, but all of the elephants at The Sanctuary, then you know how much touch means to these deeply emotional creatures. Greetings are the outstretch of a trunk before a loved one (Carol) even gets within arm’s reach. I feel for all of the elephants there, not understanding all of the changes and rejection, but for Tarra who more than any of the others has the ability to bond with those outside her species. This includes humans. If the bond with Bella was so strong, imagine the one with Carol after over 30 years together…

    I could not write a better letter about Carol Buckley than the one that the current CEO, Rob Atkinson wrote when he heard of Carol being fired from The Elephant Sanctuary she started with (and for) Tarra – http://www.carolbuckley.com/elevisions/?p=1029. The irony stings now, as with the current Board of Directors, he has not only forbid Carol from seeing Tarra, but has also changed the philosophy (making it “protected contact”) he praises so eloquently prior to taking her old job. Seeing the Sanctuary since year one, I am saddened every day by this situation. Although Carol is doing fantastic work for elephants in Asia – her heart (and Tarra’s) are bound for life here in Tennessee. Let us hope that bond gets acknowledged soon and they are allowed to see each other. Thank you Jeffrey for speaking out. We can all let them know we do not like, or support, what has happened these last few years.

    Debbie Emory-Utzig, Former Membership Chair of The Executive Council for The Elephant Sanctuary

  4. Patty Bowers says:

    It makes NO sense that Carol is not allowed to see Tarra. Why would MORE pain be inflicted on this elephant. This is an EXCEPTION to the rule.

  5. Nikki Reimer says:

    Thanks for voicing what many supporters of TES have been thinking of late. I do hope that this message gets through to those currently in charge at TES and that they recognize the error of their decision to ban Ms. Buckley from the Sanctuary.

  6. Sally Cameron says:

    No one has mentioned the fact that Carol forbade the owner of Flora, an elephant who was surrendered to the sanctuary by a very caring owner who wanted the best for his elephant, to ever visit again. She said it was in the best interest of Flora to not see him again. He had been as loving an owner to Flora as Carol had been to Tarra.

    Also, protected contact is a very intelligent, safe way to interact with elephants, both for the animal and the keeper. Elephants feel safe and can get as close as they want during an interaction, or they can keep their distance and they are allowed to act out if they are feeling angry or grumpy. If there is direct contact in a situation like that the keeper would need to use a bullhook or some other kind of force to keep the elephant from acting naturally to avoid personal injury. That is what happens in most circuses and many zoos and brutal abuse is often the result. Protected contact allows complete respect for the animal. There are large spaces between bars and lots of room for loving pats and scratches, food offerings and health checks. There is very little feeling of separation. Please go online and check out photos.

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