Monday, March 12, 2012

PAWS Ark 2000

A Heaven for Elephants


I know it was a complete surprise to many when I wrote that we have elephants ‘roaming’ in the Foothills of the Sierra.  Of course they are not native here nor are they native anywhere in North America.  But we all know that we have elephants performing in circuses and held captive in Zoos and other places.  What many don’t know is that these captive elephants too often have a very sad life story that often starts with a traumatic event when their mother and close-knit family herd are culled –another word for being killed – in their native land where elephant habitat is continuously shrinking.  The babies or young elephants are captured after the adults are gone and sold to Zoos and circuses where they are kept in small enclosures and/or trained to perform.  Most of us who love animals think training will be gentle with positive reinforcement but in the ‘industry’ this is hardly the case.  Many elephants live in unsuitable conditions, are mistreated and severely abused, and foremost held in isolation which in itself cruel for a very social animals that in the wild is strengthened by its herd and guided by a strong matriarch.  We all have heard the saying “an elephant never forgets”, this is true for these captive elephants who remember those traumatic events that lead to their life far from their home and herd.

At PAWS – Performing Animals Welfare Society -the founders Pat Derby and Ed Stewart have worked tirelessly to better the living conditions of captive animals and to give sanctuary to animals no longer wanted.  First in Galt, CA, and later in San Andreas, they created a heaven for African and Asian elephants by purchasing 2,300 acres of land that currently houses 8 elephants and will welcome 3 more elephants from the Toronto Zoo in the next several months.  Comfortable and warm barns were built with soft earth areas for resting and access to large hill enclosures where the elephants can rest, walk on green grass, and enjoy natural ponds for bathing and sandy areas for mud-baths.  Both Pat and Ed are veterans in working with elephants and have developed a unique program for true positive reinforcement.  The elephants are never chained, and no bull-hooks are used – all practices seen in other captive situations.   Here the elephants can again form social bonds, and directly interact which is an important part in the well being of these animals.  

On the first weekend in March, our group of 11 photographers met in Angels Camp not far from San Andreas at a beautiful resort where we would stay for the next 2 nights.  Over a Mexican dinner on Friday, we tried to get to know each other and were excited to visit with the elephants the next day.  Driving into PAWS on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, we were met at the gate by Pat Derby and Ed Stewart, and further into the hills we immediately saw Prince, a large male African Elephant on the hillside peacefully munching on the new spring grass.

Walking along the enclosures, we met the Asian elephants Gypsy and Wanda first.  Their story is amazing.  After capture, Gypsy and Wanda worked in the same circus but were later separated.  More than 20 years passed, but both elephants independently made their way to PAWS.  Pat tells the story that the elephants recognized each other immediately and stood close to each other in their barn stalls.  Once outside they ‘greeted’ each other by sniffing, rumbling vocalizing and trumpeting, and touching all over – a well recognized activity when elephants come together in their herd.  Going through the records for each elephants it was confirmed that they indeed had been together at a circus a long time ago.  Now, the two ‘old ladies’ hang out with each other, munch on fresh grass, take naps on the hillside and specifically enjoy the lake in the summer time.  

We stop across the path at another enclosure and observe when Mara, Maggie and Lulu emerge from the barn.  Pat is specifically fond of Lulu, a Zoo elephant that all her life was dominated by a large bull elephant that would sit on her and push her into the moat.  From all of this treatment, she is a very submissive but gentle elephant.  Standing at the barn door Pat is handing Lulu treats of fruits and veggies, and she slowly comes out into the sunlight.  The 2 other female elephants, Mara and Maggie, and Lulu have bonded and specifically Maggie has become protective of the smaller Lulu.  Although these elephants are not “family” they have formed their own strong bonds that comforts them in their old age.

Lulu leaving the barn - Pat Derby has treats ready for her

As we continue to walk towards another pond, both Ed and Pat call Mara and we see her coming over the hill to join us at the pond.
Mara and Maggie greeting each other on the hillside with typical touching and sniffing

Pat Derby with Mara

As we return to the barn area, we see Annie who is enjoying a bath.  Annie’s story is another sad one.  Tammy and Annie both were captured from the wild when they were ~ 4 years old – still babies.  They were companions at a zoo where they lived most of their lives on chains.  The facilities were antiquated and their housing was on cold, wet concrete.  Their “trainers” were abusive trying to dominate them by brute force causing injuries that were well documented in the animals’ files.  Finally, Annie and Tammy were transferred to PAWS where it took a long time for them to overcome their mistrust towards  everyone and showing typical distress of swaying, head-bobbing and rocking.  But eventually, they begun behaving ‘like elephants’ by going outside, dusting and taking mud-bath, being playful, vocalizing with rumbles and squeaks that showed that even after years of abuse patience and kind treatment at PAWS helped heal the damage brought on to them before. 
Annie enjoying a wash
Mara knows there are treats in Ed's pocket

Our last stop was the newly built barn and enclosure for Nicholas, a middle age Asian male elephant.  Nick is a big fellow, standing 10ft tall and weighing about 10,000 pounds – a beautiful elephant greeting us at the fence of his enclosure curious about the group of visitors.  Nicholas story began in a breeding facility where he was separated from his mother when he was 2 years old.  He was trained to ride a tricycle in a circus and forced to perform during his young life until he turned 5 years of age and became difficult to manage.  After that he lived with Gypsy, an unrelated ~30-year older female elephant.  Gypsy probably became his surrogate mother and they shared a small stall together for 9 years until they both were adopted by PAWS.  There they continued to stay together, sharing food, and sleeping and playing together.  Their companionship was a delight to observe.  But then ‘puberty’ hit Nick.  In the wild, this is the time when young adult males are leaving the herd and are banding together in bachelor groups.  Gypsy, the now 40 year old elephant, had taught all she could to Nick and their relationship changed over dominance issues.  So it was time to separate the young bull elephant.  Thanks to PAWS large ‘home’ and the generosity of donors, a new facility was built for Nick close to where his long time companion Gypsy is now housed with Wanda in anadjacent enclosure.  They still can see each other, touch though the fence, but Gypsy can enjoy her retirement in the company of other females – a setting as natural as it can be provided in captivity.  In the wild, elephant herds are exclusively adult female elephants with their offsprings.  While maturing male elephants eventually leave the herd, the female offsprings never leave the herd they are born in.  

Nick's barn

Visiting Nick’s barn, we could observe the most amazing interactions between Nicholas, Ed Steward and his nephew Brian who is Nick’s constant keeper and trainer.  With lots of patience and love, Nick has been trained to respond to verbal commands and treats to allow the necessary grooming that will keep an elephant happy and healthy.  You could have heard a water drop fall as we saw Nick lift his enormous foot so his toe-nails could be filed.  We were at awe.  One foot after another was presented through special openings in the stall fence and Brian used a BIG nail file to assure that the nails would not be too long causing pressure and ultimately infections often seen in Zoo elephants while Ed rewarded him with bananas, peanuts and apples.  On gentle command, he placed his head so his enormous earflaps would push though the fence and he held perfectly still without constraints when a blood sample was taken from an ear vein.  In the end, Pat Derby told us that bran is Nick’s favorite treat and sure enough, a big shovel of bran kept him eagerly munching away.  

Nick's feet are being groomed and the toes filed
Nick presents his ear 

I have read about the aggressiveness of bull elephants.  When I worked as an elephant keeper in Thailand last year at a sanctuary with 7 female and 1 young male elephant, there was much talk about what would happen when SoyThoi, the 7 year old male elephant, would mature.  While I was at the sanctuary, SoyThoi’s behavior became more aggressive leading to the separation between him and his young female teenage companion.  Thank God, SoyThoi was ‘adopted’ by one of the older female elephants, the  ~40 year old NamPhong, and they peacefully shared a large enclosure with a beautiful pond when I left the Sanctuary after a month stay.  The younger female was placed with 2 of the older females and adapted well to the company of her ‘aunts.

It was mid afternoon when we said goodbye to Pat and Ed and Brian and the wonderful elephants.  We had seen and learned so much and I am sure we all will take some of the lessons home with us.  I believe none of us will ever look at a Zoo elephant or a performing elephant again without wondering how he/she is treated, whether he had a warm and dry stall for the night, whether the keepers are mistreating them, whether they ever have soft grass under there feet, whether they are allowed the company of other elephants so important to their well being, whether they ever experience the patience and love human beings can give to animals?  So many are deprived, and live a sad life.  I sincerely hope that all of us came away wondering what we can do to better their lives?  Or to better the life of other animals that suffer – in our neighborhood, in our towns, in our country or around the world.  

Til next time,

Copyright: 2012 M. Raeder-Photography
Ref: About Elephants, Pat Derby, 2009 Performing Animals Welfare Society


Come and join me visiting the Animal Ark, a wildlife sanctuary outside Reno,
 in September 2012,  click here for all details.