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Never in Vain

An Interview with Stephen Koyle.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not have lived in vain.
If I can ease one life form aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting Robin,
Unto his nest again,
I shall not have lived in vain.

—Emily Dickinson

As part of the series on Elephant psychology and traumatology, we hear from Stephen Koyle, who has spent more than 28 years caring for animals and the last 16 years specializing in captive-held Elephant care. He holds a B.S. in zoology from Michigan State University.

After several years working in various rescue and sanctuary settings, Steve began working as an Elephant keeper at the Phoenix Zoo. His firsthand experience witnessing the plight of captive-held Elephants in Asia eventually led to his establishment of the nonprofit, Elephant Care Unchained, dedicated to eliminating cruelty and improving Elephant wellness in their native countries.

Steve, to give readers a bit of background, can you give an overview of your work with Elephants ?

I like to describe myself as an unpaid consultant for Elephants. Everything that I do is directed to improve Elephants’ lives. In this capacity, I work in a lot of different places geographically and on a variety of issues, depending on the situation. For example, I help to design facilities that support and improve the physical and psychological health of Elephants, such as increasing the area in which they live so that they are able to move more freely despite being in captivity. I also teach people who hold Elephants captive the importance of providing Elephants with food, branches, and other Elephants to address critically important needs and enrich their lives, which are so barren in captivity. One main service that I provide is foot care. It is no exaggeration to say that many captive-held Elephants have or will develop some foot issue. The central goal of our nonprofit, Elephant Care Unchained, however, is to encourage and teach captive facilities to become more humane in their overall treatment of Elephants.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

Talk a little about how you arrived in this work.

From as early as I can remember I’ve always had a love for animals. This includes dogs and cats, of course, but even at the age of 12 or 13, I would fly alone to Tennessee to work on a family friend's goat farm. That love drove me to earn a degree in zoology from Michigan State University in May of 1999. After that I worked in various settings with many different species. March, 2002, however, was a turning point. I accepted a job at the Phoenix Zoo, in Arizona. It was then that my life with Elephants began.

For the next fourteen-and-a-half years I dedicated myself to the three Elephants under my care there. In March 2013, I borrowed money from my retirement fund and took my first trip to India. I spent thirty days there helping a nonprofit organization in northern India. This experience really opened my eyes to the brutal treatment that captive-held Asian Elephants endure daily.

Fortunately, during that stay, I was able to offer different ideas and teach “positive reinforcement.” In my experience, communication and treatment of the captive Elephants in their countries of origin is through hitting or yelling. That has been the only option available, thereby creating a pretty miserable life for them. So when I approached these Elephants with good food. which they had never received, and affection, it was a welcome change for them. The Elephants responded tremendously to this kind approach. Almost immediately, they relaxed. They were so surprised. It was such an incredible feeling to see the Elephants “light up” when being treated with consideration. It was something that they never experienced until my arrival. They had never been regarded or treated as sentient thinking and feeling individuals.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

I knew I had to do more for Elephants in their countries of origin. But what? How? It took three more years for me to get the push that I needed to understand how to help the world’s Elephants. And it came in a rather unexpected way. After fourteen-and-a-half years as the senior Elephant keeper at the Phoenix Zoo, I was fired in June, 2016. While the zoo didn’t do me any favors in letting me go, I was left—and still am—without a paycheck and insurance. But indirectly, the zoo helped Elephants by freeing me. The fact is, I was never going to leave the three Elephants at the zoo (I love them and miss them every day), but I had to leave. This was a difficult choice that was made for me. Now I’m unchained. Six weeks after my termination, I applied for my 501(c)(3) and Elephant Care Unchained was formed.

A lot of your work begins and centers on Elephant foot care. This sounds very specialized, so why is it a focus? And how does physical Elephant recovery relate to psychological recovery?

Foot care is the one of the most important aspects of Elephants care. The combination of poor substrates upon which they live and walk (e.g., concrete, unyielding surfaces), restricted movement (wild Elephants walk on the earth for miles and miles nearly every day), in some cases being overweight, receiving poor nutrition, and suffering general intense psychological duress all affect the feet. If an Elephant has a foot problem, both quality of life and life span are diminished. Foot ill-health and associated problems can lead to a slow and painful death. Most captive Asian Elephants live in chains.

Caring for the Elephant’s feet encompasses so many other things, mainly the environment which they are kept in. The state of its feet—ranging from hygiene to stereotypy to abscesses from standing on hard services—can tell you a lot about what is going on with an Elephant. Providing a foot-healthy environment, as do sanctuaries like Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary, is key to starting an improved captive life.

Understanding Elephant psychology and biology is essential. For example, Elephants naturally dig, dust, and sleep on yielding natural substrates such as soil. Providing this healthy environment supports Elephants' well-being by allowing them to do what they would do naturally. The health of an Elephant’s feet reflects the health of an Elephant’s mind.

You have been speaking mostly about Asian Elephants. Are the situations of Asian Elephants and those of African Elephants different?

Yes and no. Asian and African are both dealing with serious and tragic issues. They both suffer from the “Human-Elephant Conflict “(HEC), which is really humans wanting the land and resources that Elephants need. As the human population grows, the Elephant homeland, or habitat, shrinks. Humans will not budge, and Elephants are just trying to survive. The battle for resources is inevitable.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

The difference between African and
Asian species derives from differences in human cultures. Because the human cultures that have lived with the two species are different, details of their problems are somewhat different. Most everyone is aware that African Elephants are poached for their ivory at an alarming rate—an extinction rate. But, what I find even more sad is that not many people are aware of what’s happening to the Asian Elephant. One-third of all Asian Elephants are captive and the majority are being enslaved and brutalized.

There are so many captive-held Elephants in Asia that need help. Asian Elephants have been a huge part of the Asian culture, religion, and economy for centuries. Making changes for Asian Elephants, eliminating the causes of their profound suffering, means making changes in human cultures. And that makes trying to help them as an outsider extremely difficult.

What are critical obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve Asian Elephant wellness and self-determination in countries of origin

There are so many obstacles involved when trying to improve Asian Elephant wellness in countries of origin. Here, the most common source of ill-health is the use of Elephants to make money. Many mahouts who care for Elephants are poor, and Elephants are their only means of survival. These Elephants are largely used for tourists as well as for religious purposes. When you see how mahouts live and struggle to feed themselves, it is understandable why they treat Elephants the way that they do. This doesn’t justify Elephant suffering, but you can understand why so many Elephants live in poor conditions. Like the rest of nature, Elephants are treated like just another commodity.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

Another obstacle is religion. This is particularly true in India where Elephants have been incorporated as tools of the Hindu faith. Elephants are paraded and brutalized, all in the name of religion. They may be worshiped as gods but real Elephants are treated as very un-godlike, cruelly. As we try to help Elephants in temples throughout India, our organization has been accused of being a Christian NGO just out to discredit the Hindu faith. We are labelled wrongly in this way. The truth is that we simply want to volunteer our services to help Elephants in any environment.

So these are the questions that I try to answer: How do you get people to care about the Elephants? And how does one convince someone that they should care? After all, what does a white guy from the west—like me— know about caring for Elephants? How can I convince mahouts and owners to listen and be open to me? Understanding human psychology is as important as understanding Elephant psychology. Unchaining human minds is necessary to unchain elephants.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle

What is the phajaan? And what is its purpose?

Phajaan, or "elephant breaking," is intended to coerce through psychological and/or physical means an infant elephant to do what a human wants, no matter what the task is. The specific method varies with regions and culture. Some mahouts still use physical torture. But, others use psychological and spiritual means to forcefully separate a baby elephant from his mother. This is antithetical to elephant culture and psychophysiological development and wellness. It is the most profound violence—to take a baby from her mother and family solely to serve humans. How, then, can phajaan ever be argued as "humane"?

You say that saving Asian Elephants and achieving their wellness involve radical change in human cultures, in many of which Elephants have been used in captivity for millennia. Is this deeply ingrained human cultural change possible? Doesn't this privilege Elephants over humans? Is this demand for human cultural change just another kind of European colonization?

First, I believe change is possible. It is my mission to improve elephant care globally which will lead to elephant self-determination, lives of dignity, and the freedom that we cherish ourselves. The more education and information that is available to people, the greater chances for improved elephant wellness. We must all strive to accelerate this cultural shift toward improving elephant lives.

This means we also have to help improve the lives of those who care for them—the mahouts and Elephants will both benefit. If the mahouts start to feel appreciated, are able to have some sense of security and well-being, I know that they will be able to better care for the elephants. Most mahouts lack any essential support and don’t know any other way to treat elephants. They are put into an extremely difficult situation. They fear elephants, so they use any means to keep them under control.

How can people support your work and Asian elephant psychological, cultural, and physical revitalization?

Elephant Care Unchained is dedicated to saving the world’s elephants. There are endless Elephants who need help. We have accomplished so much already in just a short period of time in six countries, and will continue to do so.

Stephen Koyle
Source: Stephen Koyle