Solving the Problem for Elephants

An Interview with Cari Zuckerman on the new All Bull Elephants' Sanctuary.

Posted Feb 08, 2017

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem. -A.A.Milne

Over the past months, we have been listening to workers engaged in elephant psychology and trauma recovery around the world—India, Nepal, North America, and in diverse settings such as sanctuaries, camps, circuses, and zoos. This time, we hear from Cari Zuckerman, RN, MA. She is the Elephant Sanctuary Coordinator of the All Bull Elephants’ Sanctuary, which is being established to care for captive-held male elephants in need in North America. Cari describes how she got involved in elephant psychological recovery, her experience with elephant trauma recovery in Thailand and India, and the new All Bull Elephants’ Sanctuary (ABES).

Cari, tell us what brought you to elephant trauma recovery.

I have “loved” elephants for a long time. Inspired by my grandmother’s collection, I began collecting elephant figures in my teens. I always jumped at the chance to see elephants and went to zoos and circuses just to see them. What I didn’t do in my teens was research who elephants really were. Then, I came across a magazine that had listed 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Elephants. One of those things was that elephants grieve their dead. That really made an impression on me but I didn’t take further steps in understanding elephants until several years later when I was working as a Registered Nurse (RN). While I enjoy nursing and see firsthand the difference that nurses make in the lives of patients, I felt the urgent call to be a voice for elephants.

I am proud to be a nurse but nonhuman animals are so disempowered that most of us don't hear their pleas for help. They are silenced by a society that has come to see abuse as normal. They need the help of humans who are ready and willing to stand up for them. So I asked myself “What can I do?” I found Canisius College’s anthrozoology master’s program and, at the same time feverishly researching everything about elephants, came upon my life’s work: try to remedy the terrible effects of captivity on these wonderful beings.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Describe anthrozoology, its purpose, and what people like you do with this education.

Anthrozoology is a formal term for “human-animal studies.” One of its purposes is to break through the ingrained dichotomy between humans and other animals. The field bridges many different areas of study—psychology, biology, art, history, and so on—to study how humans and other animals interact, how human activity impacts other animals, how other animals are portrayed in art, literature, and popular media, and to learn more about who other animals with an awareness to overcome human biases. The field is incredibly diverse. Graduates take what they have learned in many different directions. Anthrozoologists can be found fighting the problem of “pet” homelessness, lobbying for policies and laws that protect nonhuman animals, participating in conservation efforts, working to improve wildlife wellness in zoos, and the list goes on.

Why do you think that it is so difficult for people to “see” captivity?

I think it is because captivity is so “normal” in our culture. We don’t see what captivity is because we were raised and conditioned to think that a pacing, caged Tiger or circling Orca in a pool is normal. Caged wildlife have been part of human culture for hundreds of years. Historically, zoos began as a “collection” of animals to display wealth and power. Zoos represented lands that were conquered and journeys to “exotic” places. Captive animals were objects of conquest. Zoos were about the “collectors” not the animals themselves. Subsequently, this psychological framing carries over to today. Most of us grew up being told that zoos were a kid-friendly day-trip place to learn about animals. Zoos claim that children won’t care about animals unless they see them in person. However, there is no data to prove this link. A colleague of mine puts it this way: “How many kids do you know that are experts on dinosaurs, even though they have never seen one?” versus “How many kids became experts on elephants having seen one in the zoo?” Her point is that children know more about extinct dinosaurs than they do about living elephants!

Ray Ryan, used with permission.
Source: Ray Ryan, used with permission.

Seeing an animal in captivity—behind bars and barriers, living on concrete—teaches that it is OK to keep an animal imprisoned and that humans have the right to capture other animals. Recently, when I visited the Los Angeles Zoo, a group of children standing next to the elephant exhibit getting their picture taken. They were not paying the slightest attention to the elephants who were merely acted as a colorful backdrop. Visitors don’t really think about who has to live at the zoo. No one thinks about what it must be like to live one’s whole life in a cage with people constantly staring, living with no privacy, and, usually, no family, and no friends.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

How has psychology been helpful in your work with elephants?

Yes incredibly. During my internship at The Kerulos Center, I began an in-depth study of trans-species psychology (TSP), which brings together neuroscience, psychology, and ethology. This allows us to paint an unbiased scientific picture of the lives of all animals. Instead of looking and defining animals from the outside, TSP provides a glimpse of how their inner lives and experiences might be and shows that, in the simplest of terms, we are all the same. Meaningful relationships, security, and peace bring us joy and contentment. Separation, fear, and pain bring us great sorrow. It’s the same for other animals. Situations and interactions that are traumatizing to humans are traumatizing to animals.

Animals held captive and abused by the food and entertainment industries are traumatized from the moment they are born. Elephants and other animals in these situations meet the criteria to qualify for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). To perpetuate this suffering with the full knowledge pf what science has documented is unacceptable.

Part of ABES’ missions is to raise awareness about the immense suffering that captivity causes. Once I learned who elephants were, then I made a huge psychological shift. I was a bit ashamed that as a self-proclaimed elephant lover that I hadn’t understood this before. Suddenly, all other animals were other people, I could put myself into every situation that nonhuman animals are put in every day and feel the pain of it. My armor of cognitive dissonance had dissolved and I couldn’t ignore the suffering any longer. I had to do something about it.

How did you get involved in the All Bull Elephants’ Sanctuary (ABES)?

One of the first assignments in my Introduction to Anthrozoology course at Canisius College was to read Charles Siebert’s New York Times piece, “An Elephant Crackup?” in Dr. Margo DeMello’s course. I was fascinated and immediately borrowed Elephants on the Edge from the library and buried my nose in it. I still have a hard time describing how much that book has meant to me. It truly changed my life. I went on to write my final paper in that course on elephant PTSD, a theme that continued throughout my graduate career (my professors were gracious enough to allow me to continue researching and writing about elephants every semester!)

I called and said that I had a wild dream to start a sanctuary for elephants, and was semi-surprised when Gay said basically, “OK, let’s do it.” And that is what we are doing. The response from people all over the world has been amazing and an incredible group of committed professionals are literally flocking to help us make an elephant dream, real. ABES is core to the Elephant Liberation movement, and free elephants from captivity all over the world.

As the Elephant Sanctuary Coordinator for ABES, I take what we know, and science validates, about elephants and other animals, and then translate it to the on-the-ground care for rescued elephants. We bring together insights from psychology, traumatology, ethology, and neurosciences and apply it to elephant mental and physical recovery.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

ABES was sparked by the plight of Billy, a 32-year-old male elephant held in solitude at the Los Angeles Zoo since infancy. The ABES team has now invited the Swaziland elephants, individuals who were abducted from their African homeland and shipped to three U.S. zoos last year. ABES will offer a transition home for the Swaziland elephants in the hope they can be repatriated to their families in Africa. If not, then we offer them, Billy and all other elephants who come to Sanctuary, a permanent home so that they may live in dignity as part of the global movement for elephant self-determination.

Why an “all bull” sanctuary?

Captive-held male elephants (bulls) are under served because they are misunderstood and abused. Their hormonal period, musth, is typically accompanied by a natural, increased assertiveness. They are then usually chained, isolated, or punished. The length of the musth period varies by age. A first musth, which usually occurs between the ages of 25 and 30 years, may last only a few days. But a full grown, healthy adult male could be in musth for up to four months. During this time, the Elephant drips urine and secretes a liquid from his temporal glands, both of which have distinct smells. Because of the limited space and human-dominated culture of zoos and circuses, bulls in musth are typically forced into even smaller spaces and, in some cases, tethered by one or more foot for several months. This exacerbates the trauma of captivity and is terribly damaging psychologically and physically because of an in ability to move freely.

Bulls are also incorrectly deemed solitary animals. Unlike their wild brothers, captive-held bulls are forced to live in captivity without lifelong companionship. It is a misconception that bulls are “loners.” Males leave the natal group in their early teen years and enter a second period of sociosychological development when they join and all-bull group or area. On average, from the age of 10 or so until 30 or so, the young bulls spend time with and are mentored by older bulls. They learn this aspect of Elephant culture. This is also a formative time when their neuroendocrinal pathways are shaped which relates to their musth. But capture, captivity, and captive breeding disrupts all of this—it is very destabilizing for their entire neuroendocrinal and psychological systems. So neuropsychology really shows what is happening inside a male elephant mind when he is kept alone and derived in a zoo or circus.

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

Many male elephants in zoos and circuses are subjected to forced breeding by masturbation to collect their semen, which is then injected into a female. The times when males and females are out together for the purpose of mating often result in injury. It is dreadful violation and subjugation. These institutions claim that captive breeding helps conservation but the fact is no elephants is reintroduced to their homeland. What is produced are baby elephants who bring in a lot of visitors and hence revenues.

One of the reasons for emphasizing bull elephants at ABES is to vanquish these myths about bull elephants. At ABES, allowing bull elephants opportunities to socialize in a safe and nurturing setting will be key. Consistent with human trauma survivors, being able to re-establish social ties is crucial. By definition, the development and nurturance of elephant minds and brains, like those of humans, are relational. We all need love and we all need to belong. Real healing begins when someone is finally able to be in loving, trustworthy relationships. You can see an example of this at Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) where a mentoring relationship between young Mee Chok and elderly Tong Jai has blossomed.

Not all ABES residents may be able to bond because of their trauma or it may take time and finding the “right” friend. Some males who have spent years in captivity may not know how to teach younger elephants how to be elephants. Care for our residents is individualized. They will live chain-free, even during musth, and provided a lifetime home in the company of other bulls and carers.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Tell us about your experience at BLES and about some of the Elephant residents there.

As part of my Kerulos internship, I had the great honor of spending six weeks at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary  in Sukhothai, Thailand. It is home to 14 elephants rescued from around Thailand. Some were formerly logging elephants, others came from riding camps, and some were even street beggars. BLES is a family, with all the humans working as a team to meet the needs of each individual nonhuman living there. No one is more or less important than anyone else. The feeling of security and peace is what we envision for ABES.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Wassana, Lotus, and Pang Dow are three female elephants who are inseparable.They came to BLES from different places at different times but have formed a beautiful bond. They enjoy human interaction and approach visitors of their own accord (especially Wassana) to allow you to give a good trunk rub. Despite their past trauma, the three are trusting and enjoy meeting new people. They are a perfect example of the importance of rekindling positive prosocial bonds. They look out for one another, with Lotus and Wassana often surrounding the smaller Pang Dow when they feel ill at ease.

Wassana sustained an injury, probably from a landmine, before her arrival at BLES. She requires daily foot each morning. Pang Dow also gets foot care in the morning to keep infection from starting where a broken ankle was not allowed to heal correctly. Her injury was likely  the result of an attempt at forced breeding. The three stay together through the treatments, waiting until everyone is ready to go before taking off for their morning walk. I feel so honored to have spent time witnessing their incredible bond.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Then, there is Ngor who had just arrived a few months ahead of me at BLES. He was formerly a logging elephant from the small village in which BLES is located. When logging was banned, his owner could not afford to keep him anymore. He did not want the elephant that he had spent so many years with to have to go to a riding camp. Ngor was quite old and had the most beautiful calm spirit. Ngor’s passed in November at the age of seventy, but the last year of his life was spent surrounded by love and care.

Mee Chok, the youngest elephant at BLES, is seven years old. Although he arrived when he was less than two, he had already suffered immensely. He had been taken from his mother at a crucial age of development, years before he should have been weaned and subjected to the cruel practice of the phajaan or “breaking.” Mee Chok’s psychological wounds are expressed in stereotypes and unpredictable mood changes. He found a family in Somai, Pang Tong, and Lom, but then when Somai died, Mee Chock experienced another destabilizing loss. He was now big enough that his unpredictability could cause injuries to other Elephants. But when he was introduced to the oldest Elephant at BLES, Tong Jai, Mee Chok began to feel more relaxed. Under Tong Jai’s tutelage, Mee Chok is now thriving. This is what free living elephants do. It is beautiful for both of them.

Your internship also took you to India at Elephant sanctuaries created by Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (WRRC) and the TREE Foundation.

While elephants in captivity suffer around the world, every situation is different because there is such a variety of human cultures with their respective different attitudes towards elephants. I was able to see elephants in many captive setting in India. This was a difficult experience for me, as I observed the excruciating suffering of elephants in temples and zoos. I traveled with Suparna Ganguly  and Supraja Dharini to see the sanctuaries they have created for elephants. Near Pondicherry, I was asked to spend several days with the first residents of the sanctuary before they were moved from the local temple. I documented the suffering of Indumathi, Jayanthi, and Sandhya at the temple and was relieved to know that they would move to sanctuary soon.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

This was not the case with many of the elephants I saw. Some will spend a lifetime in captivity in unbearable misery. It was disheartening to know that so many will never have the opportunity to experience sanctuary. But it was fantastic to see how WRRC and TREE have made such strides in elephant protection. Now my ABES colleague, Michele, has traveled to India to share her knowledge of elephant psychological recovery and strengthen this bridge between sanctuaries.

Have these experience affected and changed you?

Yes, deeply. I am now connected to so many people around the world who care deeply about elephants and other animals. This gives me great hope. I feel surrounded by giants as we move forward with ABES. I know that we can create a better world in which other animals are valued, respected, and loved. In India and Thailand, I witnessed what human love can accomplish. We won’t be able to fix everything all at once and many animals will never know sanctuary. But we can think big, and continue to move forward.