Todd works on a 2,700-acre sanctuary in Tennessee that is home to 11 retired elephants. Yes, you read that sentence right. The Elephant Sanctuary is an expansive habitat for retired exhibition and entertainment elephants where they have the space to roam, form bonds, and receive top-notch veterinary care. As the Operations and Outreach Manager, Todd’s day includes speaking with students like 1st graders in Alabama, middle schoolers in Greece, and high schoolers in Russia to teach them about elephants.
How do your elephants end up in Tennessee?
All modern elephants in North America are captive, they aren’t native to this region. The Sanctuary’s purpose is to be a permanent place of retirement for performance and exhibition elephants, including elephants from circuses, carnivals, and zoos. We give animals a place to rest, relax, and form companionship bonds in a big, natural space that doesn’t have a lot of people around. Not all elephants are treated well in captivity, so the Sanctuary is an escape for them. The best case scenario for how elephants end up here is that the elephant owner decides that their animal is ready to retire. Some elephants are not so lucky, and the government or animal control has to interfere.
What are some of the issues elephants face, either in captivity or in the wild?
The more that we learn about elephants, the more we realize how intelligent and emotionally complex they are. We are just now starting to realize all that elephants have going on physically and mentally, and there’s still so much to learn. In the wild, elephants in Asia and Africa live enriching lives where they’re surrounded by other elephants, different animal species, plants, and nature. They are a keystone species, meaning that elephants have a tremendous impact on their ecosystem. They travel in large familial groups called herds that are always on the move. It's impossible to recreate all aspects of the wild in any man-made environment, even here at the Sanctuary. In captivity, there are cases of elephants being misused, mistreated, or abused by being confined to small spaces and chained up for most of the day. Our goal here at the Sanctuary is to give these elephants good experiences. They’re constantly learning and changing their behavior to adapt to the world around them, so we want that world to be a comfortable and happy one.
How does your staff help to improve the lives of elephants?
We only have protected contact at the Sanctuary, which means that there is always a barrier between humans and elephants to ensure the safety of both. We also use positive reinforcement management to ask elephants to do certain things. At the Sanctuary, we don’t give commands but instead give requests. If they do what they’re asked to do, they get a treat, and if not, there is no punishment. There are food treats like apples and strawberries, or auditory treats like whistles and clicks. These “requests” come in handy when vets are examining the elephants. We also give the elephants puzzles so they can be challenged in a healthy way. Education is critical in ensuring the mistreatment of elephants doesn't continue. We educate the public through our museum, interactive exhibits, and web-based education programming for schools, libraries, and families.
What is a misconception about elephants that you want to clear up for our readers?
There are so many misconceptions, but the biggest one is that people often refer to elephants as domesticated animals, when that is far from the reality. Domesticated animals are bred for desirable traits. Elephants have never been domesticated, they’ve only been taken from the wild against their will and kept in captivity. There’s a general misconception that is often perpetuated about elephants liking humans and that they belong together. In certain situations this can be the case, but it’s certainly not the generality. Think about what life is like in the wild for an elephant. If you spotted an elephant in the wild, would you approach it to jump on it’s back for a ride? Would you give it a bath? All of those qualities are trained, and that training process can sometimes be hard and abusive. So much of what we think of as normal elephant behavior are actually things that we have taught them for our own entertainment. There is a vast disparity in the ways elephants are kept in captivity— some zoos do an amazing job caring for elephants, and other facilities have a much lower quality of care.