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Something Radiant and Unknown

An interview with Michele Franko on Elephant trauma recovery and healing.

Mike Birkhead, used with permission.
Source: Mike Birkhead, used with permission.

This first glance of a soul which does not yet know itself, is like dawn in the heavens; it is the awakening of something radiant and unknown. –Victor Hugo

The first two interviews in this series on Elephant psychology and experience provided a historical perspective on the evolution and nature of the captive trade. Both interviews focused on specific Elephants, two in Nepal where Carol Buckley, Elephant Aid International founder and director, has been working the past five years, and one in the U.S. at the Los Angeles Zoo, Billy, for whom Kiersten Cluster, attorney and Special Education teacher, is seeking sanctuary.

We now shift attention from Elephant psychological trauma to Elephant trauma recovery.[2] The discussion of recovery and treatment of Elephant PTSD begins with Michele Franko, Kerulos Center Research Associate and a senior sanctuary Elephant carer. Here, she shares lessons and insights into Elephant psyche that build on her prior thirty plus years working in various animal protection settings.

Michele, before getting into Elephant psychology and trauma recovery, tell us a little about your background and previous experience.

Michele Franko, used with permission.
Source: Michele Franko, used with permission.

Probably like a lot of young adults, I started working with animals associated with exploitation industries—a “pet” store, egg processing factory farm, thoroughbred horse racing—because I loved animals. But, I quickly witnessed what the lives of these animals were really like. I saw how pervasive animal cruelty and abuse truly was. It was for this reason that I became a California State Humane Officer in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties for eleven years. I wanted to be able to do something to help animals in need and hoped that this would be possible within law enforcement. During this time, I had the privilege of being able to make a difference for an individual dog, cat or other animal’s life and I was fortunate to work with amazing, dedicated people.

Michele Franko, used with permission.
Source: Michele Franko, used with permission.

However, at the same time, the work was devastating. I learned that the scope and depth of animal suffering extended to every species, in every setting and I was faced daily with the realization that I could never save them all. There was always one more dog, one more cat, one more bird or deer who was so physically and/or psychologically injured that he or she was euthanized, or that we were able to provide relief only briefly. I was haunted by flashbacks of all the eyes that looked into mine from behind wire and bars. Now I know that I was experiencing, and still do, vicarious or secondary trauma. Some of the animals I could touch and speak with, try and give love and reassurance and others, I did or could not. Many times I found myself just walking past their cages with a guilty urge to shrug.

Was it during this time that you learned about Elephants in captivity?

Yes. During my tenure as a humane officer, I was assigned to monitor and inspect circuses and rodeos. I read up on the natural lives and cultures of Tigers, Elephants, and other wildlife, and met Pat Derby, who, having just started PAWS a couple years earlier, gave the officers a presentation on animals in entertainment. It was, to say the least, an eye-opening, jaw dropping experience. The conditions to which captive-held wildlife were subjected was a blatant, ugly contrast to their free living environments. The physical and psychological duress that an Elephant, Tiger, Lion or other animal in captivity experiences is directly proportional to the difference between captive and free living conditions.

Michele Franko, used with permission.
Source: Michele Franko, used with permission.

Can you say a little more about what you observed behind the scenes as a humane officer, specifically what psychological insights you had about Elephants that you would later bring to your trauma recovery work?

When you do this work, you are confronted with the conflict between what some people want to say is true and the stark reality of what really is. While on assignment to gather the facts, I listened very carefully to the scripted monologues and explanations by circus personnel who tell the public that swaying, rocking and pacing were signs of anticipation of being fed, enjoying the music, or being happy to see their handlers.

But it was otherwise. Behind the scenes, where the public is not allowed, you could see the misery. Lions, Bears, Primates, Tigers, Elephants, among other species, openly cowered, shrank, ran, defecated and urinated on themselves, panted, drooled, flinched, self-mutilated, shrieked, paced, swayed, rocked, tried to hide, attempted escape, screamed, and bellowed. The Elephant handlers always held a whip, electric prod, or bullhook—tools of domination used to demonstrate and communicate force and fear.

Zoocheck, used with permission.
Source: Zoocheck, used with permission.

Investigative video documentation show handlers walking past chained elephants and gratuitously hitting and stabbing them with a bullhook. Elephants are coerced through pain and fear to perform headstands, stand bipedal, ride tricycles, give rides and other acts. Training sessions include days-long sessions of chaining, block and tackling, severe beatings with ax handles, clubs, electric shocking, yanking, stabbing that are meted out until the Elephant finally "breaks"—psychological disintegration in the face of unrelenting violence and threat. The mind scars as readily as the body. All of the Elephants have permanent life-long injuries and are plagued with psychological trauma symptoms. These are the experiences of the Elephants who are rescued and come to sanctuary. It is this kind of history that we are charged to somehow try and help an Elephant to move beyond and craft some semblance of a life again.

You and others, make the point that sanctuary is still captivity. But, you also maintain that there is a vast difference between sanctuary and a zoo. From a psychological standpoint, what do you see as the difference between two?

The real difference is intention and intention drives attitude and practices. The psychology of zoos and circuses is domination and the manipulation of another being. Zoo exhibits intend to expose animals as much as possible for the sole purpose of bringing in and engaging paying visitors. Zoos say that their animal exhibits educate people about wildlife and help conservation. But wildlife captivity contradicts what conservation is supposed to achieve: support the well-being and freedom of free living species. What people learn is not “positive” because captive life completely transforms an animal from who he or she would be as someone living free, naturally. The individual the public sees is an Elephant who is severely traumatized. This is not a “real” Elephant, but an Elephant defined by trauma.

In contrast, sanctuaries are “because of” not “instead of” zoos; that is, Elephants are in sanctuary because they have to be there as a result of what has been done to them. In sanctuary, human psychology is completely reversed than it is in the captive industries. Sanctuary residents are not there to make humans money, to be bred to make more Elephants who will be subjected to the same deprivations of captivity as their parents, to entertain, or to be used to fulfill some other human desire. In sanctuary, humans are in service to Elephants, not the other way around. The philosophy of sanctuary is to serve animals in need and facilitate their well-being.

Sanctuary is nothing like their homeland of origin—the vast African savannas, the dense Thai and Malaysian jungles—but it is home nonetheless, and, as their home, it requires quiet and privacy. For instance, there are restrictions on if, who and when people from outside may see or be in the presence of an Elephant and those who care for an Elephant are there to serve.

You use the term “carer” or “caregiver” in lieu of “keeper.” Why is that?

When you look at the definitions or etymologies of the different terms, you can see how they reflect very different attitudes and psychologies with respect to how one relates to an Elephant. “Keep” implies possession and ownership. It comes from the Old English word cepan, to seize, hold; a keeper is one who is in charge, owns, or possesses someone else. In contrast, “care” comes from the Old English carian, to feel concern or interest. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, it also means “to feel anxiety, to grieve” which is certainly appropriate when it comes to witnessing the traumatic suffering that Elephants bear. My philosophy is that carers are there to listen, hear, and respond to the smallest detail of an Elephant’s need. All of this cultivates a very different human psychology of the carers.

Can you give an example of the kind of sanctuary awareness that you are describing?

Yes, many, but here is one that really illustrates the sensitivity of Elephants and the need for the carer to be equally aware and sensitive. One day, there was a change in routine, and I was near one of the female African Elephants, who was grazing in the habitat not far from the fence. She turned toward me a moment, and I said hello to her using a nickname. She took a couple steps towards me stretching her trunk out, and I explained to her why I was there and what I was doing I never take for granted that any interaction is merely a reaction, but that change of thought and recognition is taking place, creating mental space for reassuring, healing dialogue. This is very important to her. She needs to know what is going on, as she was not expecting to see me at that time. Their lives in zoos and circuses are based on being powerless, constantly uncertain, and never having any say in what they do and who they are with.

Mike Birkhead, used with permission.
Source: Mike Birkhead, used with permission.

By paying attention to what an Elephant is saying and doing, you can help reduce the uncertainty and anxiety that a change might evoke. In so doing, you include Elephants in the details of their everyday lives. They are not passive objects. I converse with them just as I would with any human. We dialogue. This is how we build trust and understanding with each other. It is only natural. Some people may call this projection or anthropomorphism, but as neurosciences and psychology—trans-species psychology—shows, Elephants are just as capable of dialogue as we are. In fact, more so given their incredible repertoire of communication channels and sensitivity. This includes telepathy, as Dame Daphne, founder of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust maintains. Anyone who spends any time with an Elephant and really listens in, sees this plainly.

You use the word “listen” quite a bit and stress its importance. Tell us a little about this and why you consider it so important in the care of Elephants and other animals.

Careful and attentive observation and listening into what an Elephant is feeling and saying is essential. It relates to one of the 10 Principles of Being Sanctuary that were developed to reflect the foundations of trauma recovery. When a carer really listens in and responds then an Elephant is being heard. Let me illustrate with an example. Like most Elephants in zoos and circuses, two female Asian Elephant sanctuary residents, were captured from the wild and torn from their families. They were brought to the U.S. where, as in the case of most commercialized Elephants, were moved between zoos and circuses around the country multiple times.

Elephants are traded back and forth, adding further, repeated trauma as relationships and bonds formed with other captive-kept elephants and offspring are unnaturally, abruptly severed. It turned out that when both Elephants were released to Sanctuary, they were miraculously brought together again after being separated for twenty years. They had been in the circus together chained and subjected to the same abuse and trauma and here they were, two decades later, reunited, enjoying the expanse of grass fields, fresh water, and friendship together.

Michele Franko, used with permission.
Source: Michele Franko, used with permission.

One day, while one of these friends was eating on her own contentedly, I set up her friend nearby with a hay net from which she ate and a water fountain inside the barn. I walked over and sat at the desk to make notes when I heard banging on the gate. I looked up to see our resident with the hay net standing where she could see me at the desk. She had begun eating but had left it shortly and came over to tell me something. I turned toward her and asked what was wrong. I commented that she couldn’t have finished up her hay that quickly and went to go see what she was asking. I have come to be sensitive to any motion, sound, and feeling evoked by the elephants as a communiqué. No gesture or sound is meaningless.

When I got near to where she had been eating, I saw that indeed she had not finished the hay in the net. It was full. But, somehow the fountain had changed pressure and had started to spray water all over on her. This Elephant is sensitive to being sprayed with water, and so had come to tell me about what had happened and that she could not get to her food. I went over and fixed the hose so she could access her food readily without it or her getting wet. She followed me to the hay net, waited for me to adjust the hose, and then continued eating. She spoke, I listened and responded, and she was heard.

We might think that such a detail is trivial. But for someone who was made powerless and impotent nearly all her life, it means the world. She has had her agency and sense of self-efficacy restored—elements that psychologists consider key to trauma recovery and psychological health. Captivity is a silencing institution. It takes away the ability to exercise free will and ignores the wishes of the captive by enforcing confinement. The knowledge and perspective about elephants in most captive organizations draws from scientific and industry views that consider other animals “less than” humans.

Elephants may be admired for their culture, intelligence, self-awareness, mourning rituals and so on, but the fact that they are legally denied rights comparable to humans reflects an attitude of objectification. Further, there is a huge gap between elephant values and those of modern humans. When an elephant is heard, it means that the caregiver values what the Elephant is feeling and thinking. It is a view of openness, the recognition that there are ways of being in the world other than human determined ones. Knowing an elephant involves much more than providing food, water, and shelter. Being heard means an individual Elephants’ needs, values, and desires are not subordinated. This information is as important as any other. Careful listening is a social gesture that validates someone physically and psychologically.

The past two interviews in this blog described the typical symptoms of c-PTSD—Complex PTSD- that are common among captive-held Elephants. Describe some symptoms and indicators of trauma recovery.

Michele Franko, used with permission.
Source: Michele Franko, used with permission.

What this resident did, what I described above—the fact that she felt confident enough to come over to me to tell me what she needed—is one example. It reflects that she has a sense of herself again, and knows that she will be heard. It is a positive feedback process. The more an Elephant feels in control of her/his life, the more a sense of well-being develops.

Of course, this includes physical, emotional, social, and psychological comfort. All Elephants who come to sanctuary have suffered in all these dimensions and any alleviation of pain opens space to divert energy to enjoying life. As time goes on, the Elephant residents become more focused on their present. They have energy and a sense of security to nap, forage, socialize, reflect on the beauty in which they live, and play—yes even play! I don’t think there is anything more joyous than seeing an Elephant happy, splashing water and smiling and laughing again.

Still, you can see the memories haunt and crowd in. Sometimes when they come up to a fence, they begin to sway and bob their heads. The past cannot be erased. But, if these feelings can diminish or happen less frequently or with less intensity, then that is a step toward healing. It is such a privilege to witness and help rekindle their soul spark. This is what inspires me every moment, every day.

Literature Cited

[1] Hugo, V. 1863. Les Miserables, p. 179.

[2] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity. Yale University Press.