March 4, 2014

Elephants of Hope: Stories About Healing. ~ Guenevere Neufeld

not for re-use

Past the bagpipe-maker shop, the antique fire engine display, the requisite U-pick apple orchard and the historic and trendy corner store, you’ll find Rosie and Opal.

Hope, Maine is home to two Asian elephants, retired from decades of circus performances and brought to this quiet New England town to heal.

With a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine, Jim Laurita and his team spent years working on offering a home to these beings he’d first worked with decades ago when he was taller than them. Fifty-seven pages of newly written State regulations and years later, Rosie and Opal, over eight feet tall as adults, have a place to live where they can receive care and healing from their physical and social ailments.

Elephants are incredibly social beings. They belong to a system where the oldest female reigns and they take care of one another. You won’t find similarities to prey animals like wildebeests or zebras, in an elephant clan the weak and sick are protected by the healthy. One of the resident experts tells us that an elephant’s empathic neuron density is second to humans. These animals feel for one another. They know about the good of the community and they know when to give and when to receive. These are things I’m still learning hard lessons in.

You still manage to capture my gaze, even with these elephants in the room. I watch you captivated by the awesome power contained within these sheaths of wrinkly grey skin. The handler tells us they can feel a mosquito bite. It’s hard to believe, but I guess it’s like us, standing here after all this time. This space between us filled with memories; we’re sharing another experience, sensitively feeling the undercurrents of pain and separation through these thick-skinned walls we shade ourselves behind.

The care these elephants receive is enough to make struggling humans envious. The topic of animals in the circus is controversial enough, what is done with them when they can no longer perform is equally as contested. A place like Hope Elephants adapts itself to the rhythms of these majestic animals, with heated sand flooring, vast indoor and outdoor grounds and organic food, just like they’d find in the wild. Unlike, humans, they are suffering from near-extinction because of the ivory trade. With only 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, Hope Elephants is a small project working toward keeping this species thriving. By supporting the lives of these orphaned, bottle-fed and trained-for-entertaining animals, they can contribute to greater, worldwide efforts to maintain genetic diversity for this illegally hunted species.

Later, at the restaurant. Thai food, in honour of the origin of these lovely beasts that bring us together again, if only for one last time. We linger over pad thai and sticky rice. Our fingers find old haunts, intertwining in soft hesitation. “I’m so f*cking mad at you.” A reservation in this tiny place wouldn’t have provided much more privacy than the bar we find ourselves at. Waitstaff pass through and you hold this anger, receiving it and letting it exist like a rumbling storm. Lightning can’t be held back. Eventually the electric charge must be released. I’m grateful, then, at your willingness to silently weather it. What else is there to say? Nothing our softly grazing skin can’t tell each other, confused in its hesitating familiarity.

Rosie’s story of healing is a sad one. Orphaned, and not taught regular elephant social norms, she behaved like a baby far into adulthood. Her fellow circus elephants expressed their disapproval with violence, pushing her to give up misplacing emotional energy in unhealthy relationships where it couldn’t be reciprocated. Ultimately an altercation left her with nerve damage and brought her here. She receives extensive therapy: acupuncture, physio and hydro therapy. Both her and Opal get foot baths and Rosie is hose-fed the water she can’t drink by herself.

We come here for healing—to these situations we put ourselves in during our time on Earth, and here to this restaurant. I’m trying to fuse the pieces of me back together, the ones left scattered everywhere in our human attempts at love. I’m like Rosie, I need to learn who I really am. I’ve embarked on a new journey, more alone than ever before, only possible because of deciding what I need for myself. What I need is to respond to what you’ve done, all those months ago, with strength and forward momentum. I need to heal.

Rosie’s therapy has improved the nerve damage or “fluffy trunk syndrome”. She’s gained an inch and a half of muscle mass around the top, meaty section of her trunk. She’s responding. Months ago the elephants had a squaring off one day. Pushing and ramming each other, it took time, but finally settled: Rosie, the older elephant in their matriarchal system, was henceforth the dominant elephant, reversing the backwards hierarchy that had been in place with Opal in charge though two years junior.

Rosie had grown and adapted. She was willing to change. And with change, healing is possible.

To find out more about Rosie and Opal go to their website: Hope Elephants


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: via author

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