December 22, 2011

Gifts We Receive from the Girls

This season is a time for reflection, and often during the holidays our thoughts turn to giving. All of us at The Elephant Sanctuary are here because of a calling. We are here for the Girls. Because we believe in The Elephant Sanctuary, some of us have moved across the country or across the world, left friends and loved ones behind, to give to the Girls and their Sanctuary our gifts of love and hard work and determination and dedication. The holidays are poignant – sometimes our families come to us in Hohenwald. They come because of their love for us, and because they are willing to travel to be with us during this special season of hope. Sometimes we are able to travel to them. Some of the Caregivers will ring in the holidays and New Year without the family they were born into, they'll be with a family they've chosen – the Girls. As you'll see in the words of our Caregivers, though, it's really the Girls who give to us. Every day at The Elephant Sanctuary, we are reminded that the Girls are the most incredible, beautiful gifts of all.


Minnie surrounded in serenity and by the first flakes of snow this season.


Steve Smith, Director of Elephant Husbandry:
Here are the gifts I have received…

The first gift: a window. The Elephants at The Sanctuary give those who care for them a unique window into their unimaginable intelligence, their compassionate social demeanor, and, in spite of their massive size and power, their gentle, inquisitive nature.
 
The second gift: proximity. I am often in awe of their willingness to allow us proximity, to allow us to care for them in ways that sometimes involve contact, with a trust and gentleness that defies the memories they must have of the abuses they experienced prior to coming to the Sanctuary.
 
The third gift: understanding. When eight or ten thousand pounds worth of elephant stands, free to leave if it chooses, and allows you to do a pedicure, allows you to take a blood sample to check it's health, allows you to toss medicines into its mouth, when it does all this and shows no signs of fear or defensiveness, that is an unparalleled gift from an incredible animal.
 
Caregiver Laurie, Asia
The Girls give me:
  • Laughter- it is impossible to watch Misty get excited --spin, trumpet, tail out, foot up, her itty bitty eyes gleaming with excitement and a little mischief, which causes Dulary to run (and I mean run) over for a rumblefest—without cracking up and feeling so incredibly lucky to witness that each and every time.
  • Humility- when providing medical treatment to the Girls, sometimes they are sensitive. In working with Shirley - when it comes to a potentially unpleasant part of the process I tell her "Ok Shirley, here it comes." A lot of the time she will lean in a little closer and accept the medication. Each time when it's over and she is enjoying her "jackpot" of grapes and other produce, I tell her "thank you Shirley…. thank you for letting me do that." …. It does not leave my mind for a second that if she wanted to she could walk away and not allow treatment to happen …... For a 9,000 lb, 64 year old being to trust me like that is absolutely humbling.
  • More humility of a different flavor- I cannot count the number of times I've lost myself in elephant love-- talking silly, singing songs, laying on the love so thick you could scoop it off ‘em when I'm through, only to realize….oh yeah, there are other people around, hee hee, I'm a big dork (smile).
  • Hope- ….it would be difficult to find a better symbol of hope. It's hard to even think about all that these Girls have been through; torn from their families as babies, abused, neglected, separated from other ele sisters throughout their lives again and again. For them to have endured all that and still be so wonderful, still have so much playfulness, still be willing to learn to trust humans, still willing to form lasting bonds with each other, still willing to explore new worlds (habitats.) They are amazing.
  • Purpose- …. right now, in this time and in this place my purpose is to love these elephants with everything I've got. I do my best to do right by them every day; providing clean yards, clean barns, yummy and nourishing diets, treatments as needed, lovin' when they want it, space when they don't and as much freedom as possible.

Caregiver Angela, Africa
As we have mentioned in the past, it is really a gift just to be able to spend time with the Girls.
 
Starting out at Q Barn, the eight girls (and one boy!) I cared for there gave me an introduction to a most amazing species. Ned (affectionately known as "Nedly" by his caregivers) was a special boy. He showed us how even after a short, cruel life he still had room to allow kindness in his final months with us. It's hard to let yourself love something and lose it so soon, but I don't think any of us would have it any other way. He was special, and I'll never look at oatmeal the same way again.
 
The soft, gentleness of Liz and her affection for her caregivers; Billie's "air horn" greeting when you entered the barn for night feed, and the humor of her light heartedness when she would find a toy and play out in the habitat; Frieda's "whale song" affectionate dialogue melted you every single time. Debbie gave the sillies, and a quietness that is amazing coming from a 10,000 lb animal. Her eyes are very expressive, and her silent communications could be just as "loud" as her rare trumpets. Ronnie is just about the cutest thing ever, and she simply gave me humor and affection pretty much every day. Silly to a fault, she was always the first to break into play it seemed, and she would get Debbie, Minnie and Lottie to join her. She is very sweet and soft, and she always gives as much as she can.
 
I didn't get to know Queenie that well, she passed away when I had only been here about 6 months, but her signature "squeak speak" always made me smile, and her independence showed how varied their personalities can be. Minnie in her quiet moments gave me a perspective that showed softness, as did her behavior after Queenie passed away. In stark contrast, her dominance and intelligence can make you shake your head in bewilderment. She is so good at problem solving and figuring things out, it's hard to believe sometimes unless you have watched her thinking something through.
 
And Lottie….oh Miss Lottie. She had a special part of me for some reason, and she showed me how acceptance, peace, caring, and love can transform even the most misunderstood. The way she loved Minnie and Queenie, supported Minnie through Queenie's death, and her abundant affection for "her people", she gave me a picture of how we should strive to be more often. Losing Lottie affected me deeply, and I will always be thankful for what she taught me, and I'm very glad a few others were as lucky as I was in knowing her. Writing about her has always been difficult for me since her passing, but as I type this now, that familiar squeeze in my chest as I remember her face and incredibly long eyelashes makes me smile. She still gives me something after all this time.
 
Now I am blessed to share the lives of Tange and Flora. Even though Flora is a celebrity these days, you'd never know it by her demeanor. She is massive, confident, assertive and independent. She also gives us acceptance and a quieter part of herself most of the time. She has shown us how even when life takes turns you don't understand, in time you can find an inner peace that helps you move forward and allow those around you "in" more. She has done this with Tange and her caregivers, and she gives me personally a warmth inside when she greets me with soft rumbles every day. Tange gives us opportunities to laugh out loud on a regular basis. She is fun-loving, playful, entertaining, and affectionate. She gives us heart and lightness that seems to also give Flora a lift when she needs it. Just being around them every day gives one a sense of privilege, and it only gets better with time.
 
Every one of them gives us something different, and together it is a gift you can't really measure. In turn, it is our responsibility to give them a life free of control, dominance, pain, and anything aside from peace that isn't absolutely necessary. They owe us nothing, but give us so much. We owe them a lot, and hopefully we can live up to their standards in giving them a good life. This is what Sanctuary means, and I hope these Ladies know nothing but that for many years to come.


Winkie, Sissy, and Tarra on a beautiful snow day.

Caregiver Sam, Q
The Girls have each given us wonderful gifts. Sometimes you recognize it in an instant, sometimes it takes months to realize what you've been given. Ronnie gives the gift of Laughter every time we interact with her. She blinks her enormous, brown eyes and walks towards us with her mouth wide open, "begging" for one of us to give HER the gifts of treats. Her enthusiasm towards everything she does, whether it's training or swimming or dusting, makes us laugh as if it's the first time we're seeing her do it, not the millionth.
 
Debbie gives us Patience, or perhaps more accurately she teaches us patience. She can be very reluctant to go outside, or to go to a yard that she doesn't feel like going to. In our hectic days, we can get flustered trying to make everything happen at once. Debbie will plant her feet, or turn her back to us, and refuse to follow the 4-wheeler. In those moments, it can be immensely frustrating. But one look at Debbie's calm, pleasant face, and our frustrations melt away. We take a deep breath. We come up with a new plan, something that doesn't involve her going to this yard or that yard. Or, we simply breathe. Sometimes we need to use the new plan, and sometimes Debbie just wanted a few more minutes to stand and ponder before she followed you. In those ways, Debbie constantly strengthens our patience, a gift we could all use in our daily lives.
 
Minnie often gives us physical gifts: branches she has broken into a hundred pieces or nearby rocks. Though perhaps "gift" is misleading, since she doesn't hand them to us so much as she throws them at/close to us (smile). Minnie also gives us Creativity, as we are forced to think of new and inventive ways to maneuver around her in the habitat, to hang her toys, and to get her cooperation. Minnie also gives us Awe, as we watch her powerful body race through the pasture to catch up to the 4-wheeler or as she breaks down trees, gleefully snapping off branches.
 
Frieda gives us, or again perhaps teaches us is a better word, to Roll with the Punches. She will lie down for an afternoon nap, only to waked up a few minutes later by Billie's insistence that Frieda get up and look at the contractors and all their machinery. She rises good-naturedly to join her sisters. Or, she will lie down for a nap, only to have one of the Facilities crew to start an unfortunately loud project that cannot wait. Frieda acts as if there is no noise at all, and naps all the way through the racket. Frieda may want to be inside first, to get first pick of the enrichments or browse, but we have to do her daily foot soaks first, and so her sisters get to go into the barn first. (Don't worry, we make sure Frieda gets her share when her foot soaks are finished.) We try to make their lives as "elephant-like" as possible, but there are some things that we cannot control. To those things, Frieda seems to shrug and say, "It happens."
 
Lizzie gives Joy to each and every person who gets to meet her. In the face of her sickness, she is still bright-eyed and sneaky. She begs for attention and treats from caregivers with a gaping open mouth (much like Ronnie). She spins and dances with her sisters Billie and Frieda when they get into their bouts of playfulness. She chirps and squeaks to greet Frieda as she enters the barn (even though Frieda has only been gone for a few minutes). She rumbles to us as we approach with her meals. For one who has been sick for quite some time and suffered for even more time before she got to us, Lizzie exudes happiness in such an infectious manner that we can't help but get happier in her presence.
 
And dear, sweet Billie gives us Compassion. Of all the Q-Girls, Billie seems the most scarred by her time with the Hawthorn corporation. Fearful of new and different things (unless those new and different things are food), constantly wary of all the large machinery that hustles and bustles around the Quarantine Barn, startled by us if we accidentally come around a corner too soon, Billie still has a long way to go in trusting us. But no matter how difficult she can be, like when she's preventing Frieda and Liz from leaving the barn in the morning because she won't leave, or when she's waking Frieda up from a nap because of a new noise off in the woods, we can't look at Billie with anything but love, our hearts breaking for what she has endured to make her the way she is. Billie makes us strive to be better, to do better, every day. She makes us try our hardest to somehow make up for the hurt done to her. And on days where we feel like we've made progress with Billie, like this summer when Richard was finally able to remove the chain around her ankle, we can't help but cry tears of joy.
 
Thank you all for sharing our most precious gift, the Girls, with us.


Misty and Shirley sharing the gift of sisterhood.