From Agony to Ecstasy

An interview with Carol Buckley on Elephant trauma recovery.

Posted Dec 18, 2015

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

On the heels of discovery and diagnosis of Elephant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a new species-common "science of sentience"—trans-species psychology—has emerged. Soon after, neuroscientists openly admitted in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness that humans and other mammals, reptiles, birds, and even invertebrates share brain processes and structures that govern thinking, feeling, and the experience of consciousness.[1][2] Animals are now shed of ethology’s silencing and emerge in the voice and agency upon which psychology insists.

This interview marks the first in the new series, The Many Faces of Trauma, where we explore the nature of trauma and trauma recovery of nonhuman animals.
We begin with the psychological experiences of African and Asian Elephants. Carol Buckley, founder and former CEO of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and founder and CEO of Elephant Aid International, sets the stage.[3]

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

Carol is considered the world’s foremost expert on adult Elephant trauma recovery and care having worked over forty years in the field, first in the circus then as an Elephant rehabilitator and activist. While she will continue her international work in Asia, she will be establishing a new U.S. based sanctuary that will take in Elephants from zoos and entertainment so that they can enjoy lifetime care and the opportunity to revitalize body and mind. Here, she shares some of her insights into Elephant and human psychologies and Elephant trauma recovery that she has gained during her tenure in Asia.

Carol, after more than four decades with Elephants in captivity in the US and Canada, you have spent the past five years working with Elephants in Asia—Thailand, India and Nepal. What are some of the most striking things you have noticed?

CB: Because captive-held Elephant lives are so impacted by humans, their situations are very much influenced not only by the specific climate and terrain in which they live but the specific human culture. Importantly, we have to keep in mind, that similar to humans, Elephants have cultures, customs, and language specific to each family too. For these reasons, Elephant care and recovery both as individuals and as a society need to be tailored to each locale and conditions. All Elephants need to be free from human violence and abuse, all Elephants need to be with their families, have access to fresh and healthful foods, and have autonomy; able to live their lives on their own and make their own decisions, and so on.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

Subsequently, everything that I learned over the years with Elephants in North America does carry over to Elephants in Asia. Tragically, I discovered another commonality across continents – all Elephants in captivity have been subjected to “breaking.” The practice of subjecting young Elephants to severe emotional and physical abuse with the purpose of forcing them to submit to humans unquestionably (what is called phajaan in Asia) is shared in North American and European zoos and circuses as it is in Asian countries of origin.

In light of changing public concerns, the traditional form of phajaan has been modified where the infant Elephant is tethered to ropes between two koonkis (mahout-ridden Elephants) and forced to walk until he or she collapses at which point the young Elephant is dragged, terrified, to the point of near physical and emotional exhaustion. In both cases, traditional and modified phajaan, the outcome is the same, a psychologically shattered Elephant.

Can you briefly describe the traditional process of breaking an Elephant or the phajaan?

CB: A young Elephant is forcibly taken from his/her mother and confined in a wooden pen called a crush that is barely bigger than the baby Elephant, the legs are tied down to posts of the pen so that s/he cannot lie or sit down or turn around.[4] Over the next few weeks, the infant Elephant is provided limited water and food, is deprived of companionship, given no shelter from the sun and elements which in itself can be quite harsh and life-threatening, then relentlessly beaten, stabbed and frightened with fire by the mahouts (the men in charge of Elephants) with an array of metal and wooden weapons.

Their mouths and tender trunks and anus are also prodded and made to bleed. The baby is terrified, defecates and urinates from fear and pain. It is a horror. This continues until it is evident that the ritualistic breaking has been successful. In the case of the phajaan in the Western world, the Elephants' legs are chained to the ground preventing the baby from moving in any direction. Like their counterparts in Asia they too are provided limited water and food, deprived of companionship, and relentlessly harassed with sharp metal bull hooks until they comply with the human “trainer” consistently.

Not only are the practices and intent similar in the west and in Asia, but the mindset of the men torturing the Elephants are the same. Their approach to training Elephants is hauntingly similar. To this day circus Elephant trainers think, talk about and act toward Elephants exactly the same way as the mahouts in Asia.

It is true that when Asian Elephants were first brought to the North America and Europe, the mahouts accompanied the Elephant to show the new trainers how to work with Elephants. But, there is something more to it- down to the detail they all analyze and respond to Elephant behavior in the same way and feel deep down that they have a right to treat Elephants the way they do.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

You once said, “In all my years of rescuing Elephants, I have never seen an Elephant whose soul is as broken as those who have endured the brutality of the phajaan.” Can you say a little more about this?

CB: Breaking an Elephant has a profound life altering effect on them.  The first and often only Elephant that most people see is a captive-held Elephant. Many who watch a circus or zoo Elephant bob, pace or sway—what are called stereotypic behaviors—think it is normal. Some responsible for educating zoo visitors and circus goers misrepresent the neurotic behavior claiming that the Elephant is dancing. Dull sunken eyes, lameness after years of standing on concrete in an unnaturally cold climate, poor care—go undetected to most who view Elephants in captivity.

But when you see an Elephant in the wild who has grown up with his/her family and has been able to live like an Elephant should and was evolved to do, it is a completely different story. They are full of life, they play, their eyes sparkle. The light inside is shining bright, whereas in many captive-held Elephants, the light has gone out.

You have talked about the changes in human culture and economy that have had a huge impact on Elephant well-being and practices, for the worse.

Rebecca Winkler, used with permission
Source: Rebecca Winkler, used with permission

CB: Up until 1965, Elephants captured for export to the west and used in Asia were traditionally no younger than five years old.  Older was better as they were weaned giving them a better chance of surviving an overseas voyage to the western world and the trauma of the phajaan. After 1965, Asia started to export Elephants by plane. Unfortunately this was advent of very young Elephants—some only a few months old---being prematurely separated from their mother and exposed to air travel and traumatic training practices at a seriously young age. Plane transport cost was by the pound, whereas via ship was by the crate. Subsequently, smaller babies were cheaper to transport. Due to their age and vulnerability three out of four babies transported by air died during transport. That shows how traumatic the experience was.

Asian sellers received payment upfront with no guarantee of survivorship. They got their $7000 whether the baby arrived dead or alive. Since the zoo and circus industries were desperate to fill their stables with Elephants, the costs were well worth the chance of receiving a live baby Elephant. The exporters made lots of money, while hundreds of Elephants lost their lives every year.

Even now, there is an effort by zoos to obtain new, live, wild-caught baby Elephants from Africa. Research shows that Elephants in captivity do not survive as long as their wild counterparts. Breeding programs are few and mostly unsuccessful, and the mortality rate is very high due to the herpes virus, the number one cause of death in young captive-held Elephants.

Evolving human cultures in Asia has not benefited Elephants. For example, in Thailand, as in other Asian countries, logging has been outlawed leaving captive -held Elephants unemployed. With relatively no wild left, reintroduction back to the jungle is not an option. Now they are used as tourist attractions giving rides.

You narrowly missed Nepal’s  8.1 magnitude earthquake that was so devastating. Can you describe its effect on captive-held Elephants?

I left Nepal two days before the earthquake hit in April 2015. It caused tremendous damage and a lot of people died and others left homeless. In an effort to boost morale the Nepalese government completed their new constitution, a document that was on the drawing board for some time. The governments' effort to align the citizens of Nepal may have succeeded overall, but one component of the new constitution backfired. The new constitution stipulates that only a 100% Nepali person can hold office. This constitutional law virtually disenfranchised an entire population of Nepali people living on the countries southern border shared by India. Intermarriages are common among the people in this area. They immediately began rioting in the streets.

To demonstrate their displeasure, India, Nepal's petrol supplier enacted a fuel embargo on Nepal. This has proven disastrous for Nepal's economy and the country's relationship. Without petrol the tourist industry has all but collapsed and other industries have been crippled. Without tourism the Elephants are virtually unemployed and their owners, who are also hotel owners, claim there is not enough money to feed the Elephants properly.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

In the midst of this disaster we see an opportunity to improve Elephant welfare. This would be a great time to start an Elephant retirement home and transform how Elephants are used in Nepal.  

Describe the kinds of projects and work that you do in Nepal.

My overall goal is to improve Elephant psychological and physical wellbeing by helping change human attitudes and behavior towards Elephants from domination and abuse to co-existence and respect. I work closely with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the National Trust forNature Conservation to free Elephants from chains, teach mahouts how to care for their Elephants in more humane ways and transform the way Elephants are used in Nepal. For example, I hold clinics and visit various places teaching Elephant foot care, what foods are appropriate, in what situations Elephant thrive and suffer and how improving wellbeing benefits the Elephants and mahouts alike. My work gives me entrée into the mahout communities. With trust, change is possible.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

We also have a project called Chain Free Means Pain Free which creates solar powered corrals to free Elephants from chains.[5] When they are chained, Elephants front legs are hobbled together and they are tethered under a tin shelter. This confinement prevents natural posturing and healthy physical activity. It causes dreadful psychological pain and distress.

Traditionally, Elephants were chained, usually up to fifteen hours a day. When chained they are deprived of a natural healthful environment and subjected to near total deprivation of their family and friends. Being chained for prolonged periods of time is psychologically devastating and can cause physical injuries including, arthritis and terminal osteomyelitis. Solar-powered chain-free-corrals are a huge improvement for Elephants. In the chain-free corral, each Elephant is free to move at will and engage in natural behavior such as dusting, foraging, sleeping, bathing, walking, playing and socializing.

Can you give a couple of examples of Elephants you have known and worked with in Nepal that helps “put a face” to Elephant experience of the psychological trauma of captivity?

Mel Kali is a seventy-two year old female Elephant in Nepal. Given her age and also her psychological state, it is obvious that she was not subjected to phajaan until she was weaned and old enough to survive the trauma. Unlike others, who were subjected to phajaan as young babies, Mel Kali is relatively intact psychologically. Shortly after I met her, Mel Kali nearly died of pneumonia. She was very thin, living on an insufficient diet, and still working daily carrying tourists and providing anti-poaching patrol in Chitwan National Park. When not working, she was chained by both front legs under a meager shelter that did not protect her sufficiently from the regions cold winter. The mahouts felt helpless. They felt she was too old to survive. They were basically letting her die. It was an eye opening experience for me. I realized several things; the mahouts were helpless, if not hopeless. Management was disinterested. It appeared  that there was no one willing to fight for Mel Kali's life, except me. So I called in a veterinarian technician friend of mine. He came immediately. It was interesting to see how the mahouts responded.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

All of a sudden the mahouts became interested in Mel Kali and worked hard to get her well. Following the technicians instructions, they took turns holding up a bag of sub-q fluids, on a long pole, above their heads for hours and tenderly gave her warm, boiled rice and molasses, coaxing her to eat. She received fluids for dehydration, medication for the pneumonia and vitamin injections to support her immune system and a local woman made a blanket to keep her warm. Within 24 hours Mel Kali was showing improvement and within a week she was back to her old, spunky self. As result of her near death Mel Kali's owners agreed that due to her advanced age  and 60 years of service, she could retire. Today, nearly two years later, she is healthy, happy, chain free and enjoying her retirement.

Every morning Mel Kali's mahout brings her to the banks of the Rapti river, gives her a verbal releases and watches as she wades across the briskly flowing water and disappears into Chitwan National Park. There she roams, free of her mahout or any other restraint, doing whatever she wants. In the evening she returns to her shelter on her own. The sight of her is so touching; Mel Kali, a captive-held Elephant free to wander Chitwan National Park, undisturbed by man, chains or abuse. She is definitely the luckiest Elephant I know in Asia. Then there is Prakriti Kali who exhibits advanced stereotypical behavior as result of experiencing a series of traumas.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

Prakriti Kali is a young female Elephant who was recently assessed psychologically and showed that she had sustained multiple traumas: attachment rupture (taken from mother and family), torture (phajaan), socio-emotional deprivation (lives chained and isolated), chronic hunger (starved), physical exhaustion (labored for sustained periods at excessive temperatures). She was formally diagnosed with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (c-PTSD).[6] Can you describe some of her symptoms?[7]

CB: After Prakriti Kali was taken from her mother, subjected to the phajaan, and then chained, she began to exhibit unnatural and disturbing stereotypical behaviors. She engaged in dissociative head bobbing and swaying for hours at a time, everyday. These are well known coping mechanisms captive-held Elephants employ when under stress.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

But Prakriti Kali also exhibit potentially self-destructive behaviors as well. She grabs the end of her tail and pulls on it repetitively. Vet checks ruled about any medical reason for her pulling on her tail. But the behavior that concerns me the most is when she assumes a seriously contorted, unnatural squat position with her front legs pushed back between her back legs, all the while verbalizing to herd members in the distance. There is nothing natural about this behavior. In fact, the torque pressure put on her joints in this position can be seriously damaging. All of these behaviors occur when Prakriti Kali sees her mother, sibling or other herd members but she is not allowed to interact with or touch them.

What do you think attracts people to Elephants so much?

CB: I think it is because Elephants radiate an accelerated degree of compassion and complex emotions. This acts like a magnet and people are attracted because even though the feelings are hauntingly familiar, most people have never experience such emotion before.

Is there any positive change for Elephants?

CB: Yes. In the U.S. and elsewhere there are more and more sanctuaries popping up. Until a few years ago, there were no Elephant sanctuaries in the world.  Now there are in the US, Africa, Thailand, India, and we are working to establish one in Nepal. This is really an achievement of the Elephant advocacy communities and activists.

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

When I first established the Tennessee sanctuary, the concept of sanctuary was viewed as odd a “fringe” movement. But over the past two decades things have changed. Thanks to Sanctuaries able to take needy Elephants and the protection movement organizing around making the public aware of the problem, sanctuaries are now viewed as mainstream and the gold star of captive-Elephant care. Now Ringling Brothers Barnum and Baily Circus has recently announced that they are withdrawing Elephants from their shows by 2016. Many zoos are closing their Elephant exhibits. This reflects a huge shift.

Do you see a positive shift in human mentality? And if so, how do humans need to change psychologically?

CB: Yes, over the past twenty years I have seen a profound change in how people think about Elephants in captivity. I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to a time when people stop seeing Elephants and other animals as objects, “things” we need and use to make ourselves feel better. Being in the presence of Elephants is indescribable and glorious. Hopefully soon people will find more pleasure in watching Elephants be Elephants rather than forcing them be subjected to riding, petting, and other entertainment. I realize the change is a process, one step at a time. But I can envision a human population that truly respects animals, Elephants included, and finds the notion of being entertained by them repulsive. I'd love to believe that our species will learn to live in a way that allows Elephants and other animals to live and thrive the way they are evolved to. This means giving back land, stopping the Elephant trade that makes Elephants play music, paint, give rides and all these things that are designed to entertain people and make money for others. We will evolve when we begin to be more like Elephants.

Describe what it means to you to “be like an Elephant.”

CB: It means adopt Elephant values and ways. Elephants don’t judge. They do not put their personal interests ahead of the group. When there is a disagreement, a difference in opinion of what to do, they get together and talk it over and come to an agreed upon solution that benefits the total, not just the individual. Elephant culture is a culture based on compassion. It is as simple as that.

Given what Elephants in captivity endure, is it possible to help them heal from psychological trauma? What is the role of a caregiver/Elephant therapist?

CB: Yes and no. What we can do and what I have done is take away the threat and the constant abuse imposed on them. The absence of violence, healthy food, plenty of water to drink, swim in and splash with, and ability to roam through hundreds of acres when and with whom they want is a tremendous plus for any Elephant. I have seen this countless times - the transformation that happens in sanctuary. Old injuries still plague them and we can never replace what they have lost, but we can give unconditional love and care and respect, give them a place and space that resembles Elephant life and culture. Caregivers play a vital role. It takes putting one’s ego aside and opening your heart completely for the Elephant, cultivating ways of listening and behaving that can tap into an Elephant’s needs and desires. They also have to function like a “culture broker”—someone who helps an Elephant learn how to live across cultures in a healthy and supportive way—their own culture (Elephants have many), human sanctuary culture, their past).[8]

That sounds very much like what a “good” human psychotherapist learns to do and what Viktor Frankel calls “making meaning.” What I hear you saying is that Elephant care and consideration ethically and practically requires a psychological as opposed to behavioral lens and approach?

CB: Yes, it is very similar with the difference that Elephant minds and emotions, that is their psyches, are not the same as humans. Their minds are so vast and emotions so deep we are only able to touch the surface. But minds and hearts can meet on common ground. We have so much to learn from Elephants. By learning more about their psychology, we can learn what it is to think and feel like Elephants. They are beautiful models of how we can evolve as a species.

In closing, obviously you have a fathomless richness of knowledge and insights to share, which we might explore in successive interviews, but for now, can you say a little about your ongoing and future plans?

Carol Buckley, used with permission
Source: Carol Buckley, used with permission

CB: Our Nepal work has been tremendously successful and continues. I have been so fortunate to have met some amazing people who have made this happen. Also, we are very excited about starting a new elephant sanctuary in the U.S. that will be able to assist Elephants in need.

We are developing a two-year elephant training exchange program that will bring Nepalese mahouts to our U.S. sanctuary to learn our methods of Compassionate Elephant Care.[9] This method helps caregivers develop a philosophy, a psychological attitude and approach that works to support Elephant healing at profound levels. They already know how to “handle” Elephants, so they are experienced in many ways, but their approach is domination.

Our goal is to “re-train” them how to care for Elephants effectively with compassion and non-dominance. They will also learn about the various approached that I have brought into Elephant trauma recovery that includes homeopathy, animal communicators, aromatherapy, massage/touch therapies and so on in additional to more traditional medicine—a compassionate listening and caring. The mahouts will then return to Nepal where they can teach others and in so doing change the Elephant mahout and general public culture.

Literature Cited

[1] Bradshaw, G.A. (2005). Elephant trauma and recovery: from human violence to trans-species psychology. Doctoral dissertation Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara.

[2] Bradshaw, G.A , Schore, A.N., Brown, J Poole, J. & Moss, C.J. 2005. Elephant breakdown. Nature, 433, 807.

[3] Elephant Aid International.

[4] Phajaan YouTube.

[5] Chain free means pain free.

[6]Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Inside looking out: neuroethological compromise effects in elephants in captivity. In An elephant in the room: the science and wellbeing of elephants in captivity, D. L. Forthman, L. F. Kane, David Hancock, and P. F. Waldau. Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy.  pp. 55-68.

[7] Bradshaw, G.A. 2014. Psychological Assessment for PK: a 12-year-old Captive-Bred Female Asian Elephant, Nepal.

[8] Buckley, C. and G. A. Bradshaw. 2010. The art of cultural brokerage: recreating the elephant-human relationship and community. Spring Journal, 83, 35-59.

[9] Compassionate Elephant Care (CEC).