Elephant-dog friendship at elephant PTSD sanctuary
October 27, 2009 5:32 PM   Subscribe

Meet Tarra and Bella, an elephant and a dog who are best friends. They live at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, a haven for elephants with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

There won't be a movie, but Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley tells the story of Tarra and Bella in a picture book. (For a premium price -- all net proceeds go towards the Sanctuary -- copies are available that have been stamped with Tarra's signature and Bella's pawprint.)

The Elephant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder page provides interesting context for thinking about elephant violence and rehabilitation. (The first link on the page, "An Elephant Crackup?", makes a passing mention of elephant-on-rhino rape. For those interested in whether that really happened, here's what I found: The Straight Dope, "Herd Mentality: Of Pachyderms, People, and Peril", and a bit more detail from the author of "Herd Mentality" at the "neurobiology" link below.)

G. A. Bradshaw, specialist in "trans-species psychology, the theory and methods for the study and care of animal psychological wellbeing and multi-species cultures,", argues in a 20/20 video that "To diagnose an elephant with PTSD is novel, but that's because we have denied elephants the capacity of having a mind, having a psyche, having emotions. But basically, the neurobiology . . . is there." (20/20 video has scenes of elephant shootings, capture, and harsh training that some may prefer to skip, from -13:25 to -12:57, -10:40 to -10:34, -9:55 to -9:44, -4:28 to -4:18; elephant violence at -9:24 to -8:04; Sanctuary footage begins at -7:24; heartwarming elephant reunion footage at -4:04)

Previously: animal consciousness?; The Elephant Sanctuary; Animal Kingdom Odd Couples.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus (38 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I saw the Terra and Bella video a couple of weeks ago... very touching and interesting..

nice job on filling out this post....
posted by HuronBob at 5:47 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


(and now I have Post Heartwarming Local News Story Announcer Voice Stress Disorder (PHLNSAVSD))
posted by DU at 5:47 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Whatever y'all do, watch the "won't" clip.... to the very end... it will make your day! :)
posted by HuronBob at 5:53 PM on October 27, 2009

And that's another one of . . . Kent's People. Err, dogs and elephants.
posted by John of Michigan at 5:54 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any creature that can grieve and go through death rituals for lost loved ones should be extended basic rights.
posted by Malor at 5:58 PM on October 27, 2009 [22 favorites]

I think that, too, Malor, but I'm a little worried about how sweeping this rule is going to be.
I mean, I'll give up bacon if I have to... but I really don't want to.
posted by Richard Daly at 6:07 PM on October 27, 2009

"Harbor no secrets"? I never knew dogs to be the conniving sort. Elephants, maybe ...
posted by filthy light thief at 6:17 PM on October 27, 2009

Excuse me, I have something in my eye.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:19 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Elephants : there may be more than just junk in that trunk
posted by mannequito at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Richard Daly: "I'm a little worried about how sweeping this rule is going to be. I mean, I'll give up bacon if I have to... but I really don't want to."

One doesn't have to renounce the (self-proclaimed) right to eat meat to acknowledge that industrial-scale hog farming is a moral and environmental catastrophe.

If bacon were priced at the level necessary to pay for humane, non-polluting hog farming, I assume that few of us would be able to afford the pleasure often.

I'm not happy about that.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:24 PM on October 27, 2009

Love this post, as I love any evidence to support the fact that humans are not the only species on the planet to have emotions, attachments and cool best friends.

Plus, the elephant gently petting the dog's tummy was awesome.
posted by OolooKitty at 6:29 PM on October 27, 2009

[sniffle] [sniffle]
You have no idea how grateful I am that this story included no video because I'd be a total basket case of warmed-heartitude.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:30 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember when this video first came out. It made me cry then and it makes me cry now.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:39 PM on October 27, 2009

I saw a thing on PBS about this place. They brought in a new elephant and she immediately started interacting with another elephant that had been there a while. Turns out the 2 elephants had been in the same circus together 20 or 30 years before, but they recognized and remembered one another. The zoo in San Antonio used to give elephant rides to the kids up until about 20 years ago. That ended when one of the elephants picked up and killed a zookeeper by pile driving him head first into the ground. I would bet that the zookeeper was mean and rough with the elephant and she had her fill of it. Elephants never forget, I hear.
posted by Daddy-O at 6:39 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and a 6 year old told me this joke: What does an elephant keep in it's trunk? A 6 foot long booger!
posted by Daddy-O at 6:40 PM on October 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Elephants are incredibly cool, but they are at about the outer limits of believability on the "these are real animals living with us here on planet Earth" scale. They, and giraffes, just seem so alien.
posted by yhbc at 6:44 PM on October 27, 2009

Junk in the trunk is right - I've never seen such a fat elephant!
posted by Flashman at 6:57 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

There was (may still be) an elephant in one of the Ringling Bros units who had a dog. The circus even let them live together on the road.
posted by grounded at 7:07 PM on October 27, 2009

There was (may still be) an elephant in one of the Ringling Bros units who had a dog. The circus even let them live together on the road.

That "let" speaks volumes about something, but I just don't know how to put it into words.
posted by treepour at 7:33 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Was I the only one wondering how the dog ended up with a spinal-cord injury (mentioned in the first video)?

Still awesome, though. And I agree that elephants certainly blow the idea of a human monopoly on emotions or intelligence out of the water.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:55 PM on October 27, 2009

Elephants always amaze me. I had the privileged of spending a great deal of distanced time with the ones at Zoo Atlanta, and even then, realized quickly that the individual elephants not only had individual personalities, but individually recognized me day after day even though we never had physical contact, and I was never closer than 75 feet to any individual. To watch them, day after day, and discover in an animal something so close, at least in appearance, to human emotional behavior, something I was cognitively aware of but had never really observed personally, was mind blowing. I do not question that these animals have minds very much like, but notably different from in distinct ways, our own.

As to the bacon thing above? Having spent a good deal of time around pigs, they are well below, in my opinion, cats and dogs in terms of emotional or cognitive intelligence. I've owned snakes with more problem solving skills than an average sow or boar. So, were I going to draw a line in the sand somewhere, pigs would probably be well below it in terms of "animals to which I would extend full rights to as sentient beings."
posted by strixus at 8:16 PM on October 27, 2009

I worked at a zoo this summer as a janitor. My section/bathrooms were stationed right next to the elephant exhibit, so I got to spend most of my time staring at the three girls: Alice,1 Ginny,2 and Kate.3

I heard several stories about the elephants, mostly from other janitors.4

One story I heard was about how the girls had gotten to the zoo. According to the story, they had been born in Africa, taken from their mothers at a very young age (these girls were all related and from the same group, cousins I think), and put on a train. From the train they apparently saw other elephants being beaten, some killed for ivory, all sorts of horrible things. They were taken to a circus but proved too difficult to train, and then somehow ended up being purchased by the zoo, once more transported by train (i assume some other method of transportation was involved to get from Africa to the US, however).

The details all change depending on who you ask, but the main thing that stays about the same is the train.

The thing about the elephant exhibit is that it runs along the back edge of the zoo. The back service road runs parallel with the edge of the zoo, and on the other side of the service road lay train tracks. The tracks are used by some ethanol company to transport the fuel from some storage facility near the zoo to I'm not really sure where. The train runs by anywhere from 0-6 times a day.

I was told that when they first arrived at the zoo, the elephants would flip out anytime the train would rumble past. The highway that lies on the other side of the tracks and all the traffic that ran along it never bothered them, but whenever that train rolled by they'd lose their shit. Story goes that they were freaking out because the train reminded them of everything they'd gone through. I had read about elephants and about how they have emotion and mourn when other elephants die, so this didn't seem too far fetched to me. And now I learn they have a refuge for elephants with PTSD. I believe it.

Anyway. On preview, thus concludes my wall o' text about that time I worked at a zoo, complete with footnotes. I'll be sure to stop by any thread dealing with bathroom etiquette, creative fecal arrangements, arthritic giraffe mating behaviors, or the fucker who invented the plastic wrappers for juice box straws. I've got a few more stories left.

1Alice was the smallest, and had a habit of rocking her head/trunk from side to side over and over (Most parents, as seen in the video, explain it away to their kids as dancing. It's actually a form of stereotypy and makes such comments from parents depressing as hell).

2Ginny was just your average elephant, with no real distinguishing traits about her, except that she was the largest (which had more to do with her large belly than height).

3Kate was apparently the matriarch of the group. She had a great big notch in her ear from where a small piece had been removed due to an infection or reaction following some vaccination, but the space had grown as she got bigger.

Kate was great to watch. I remember one day I was sweeping up near the elephants, and I look up to see Kate pushing and kicking a giant plastic ball--part of their enrichment program--along the fence. Every few feet she'd stop, stand on it with her two front legs, and use it to get at branches and leaves she normally couldn't eat. I asked the head keeper about it, and she said Kate had figured that out on her own. Clever girl.

4One day a few years ago the elephants had somehow gotten a hold of a squirrel. I'm not sure if it was alive or dead when they nabbed it, but they started entertaining themselves by picking it up, slamming it down on the ground, and throwing it across their enclosure. There was nothing the keepers could do about it except wait for them to finish. For the finale, Kate picked it up and threw it into the crowd. I wish I had been there to see it...
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:17 PM on October 27, 2009 [22 favorites]

Eponysterically, CitrusFreak, you might be interested to know that at Addo National Park in South Africa you're forbidden to take any sort of citrus fruit in your car with you, because the elephants there love it so much they will freak out when they smell it and try and get inside.
It's here: http://www.sanparks.org/parks/addo/tourism/general.php

I *believe* this is because it's in the middle of an orange growing area, and for years the elephants were fed surplus oranges as a treat and they just grew to crave them so much.
posted by Flashman at 8:48 PM on October 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think I know where I'm taking my next vacation.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 9:26 PM on October 27, 2009

Elephant PTSD? Were they in 'Nam or something?

Oh wait, they were.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:04 PM on October 27, 2009

Any creature that can grieve and go through death rituals for lost loved ones should be extended basic rights.

Naah. Rights are a social contract which the other party cannot by its nature fulfill.

In re: the mention of pigs above, not only are they along with elephants and primates, smart enough to pass the mirror test, they can use mirror to problem solve.
posted by Diablevert at 10:24 PM on October 27, 2009

another companion species, a donkey, Wister, and barbara smuts's dog, Safi, here.
posted by jrb223 at 11:05 PM on October 27, 2009

I have a friend who used to work for the Zoo Director (he had some other fancy title which I forget) at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The elephant who lived there, Gildah, was friends with a turkey who shared her enclosure during the day. Every now and again the turkey would get on Gildah's nerves and she'd push him into the moat, and when my friend was giving me a behind-the-scenes tour one day her walkie-talkie cracked and a voice said "turkey's in the moat, turkey's in the moat" and one of the elephant staff had to go and fish him out with a big net. He and Gildah would always make up though.

Outside the zoo opening hours, Gildah had a big enclosure at the back of the Mirage where she lived (sans turkey, who stayed in the 'day' enclosure all the time) and her keeper lived in a house adjacent to the enclosure. Gildah could see into his living room and watch TV and if there was a show on she didn't like, she'd make a fuss until he switched over. A new zoo boss came in and fired a bunch of people, including Gildah's keeper. According to my friend, this greatly upset Gildah and she became depressed.

My friend's husband, Rich, loved Gildah and whenever he visited his wife at work Gildah would always seem to recognise him and 'make a fuss' of him. She responded to people around her and seemed to form relationships with them.

After Roy Horn was attacked by a tiger at the Mirage, Gildah's life was pretty miserable. The zoo was effectively shut down and she was kept confined in her night enclosure. There was a campaign to get her relocated to the Tennessee sanctuary but it never happened, and she died, aged 57, coincidentally on the same day as my friend's husband, Rich. My friend said that she imagined Rich riding into heaven on Gildah's back.
posted by essexjan at 1:14 AM on October 28, 2009 [9 favorites]

Elephant PTSD? Were they in 'Nam or something?

Circuses. Much as I'd like to go to circuses (I enjoy the acts, and find animals fascinating), I refuse to go.

Because circuses are literally daily torture of animals for no purpose other than monetary gain and ephemeral amusement. And more so for the largest, longest lived animals, hauled from city to city in crapped trains and trailers. And most for the elephants: large, long lived, and social, they end up beaten, crippled, arthritic, afraid and depressed. All for momentary amusement.

Animal circuses are ugly and barbaric and no better than dog fights or bear-baiting or the various medieval games of cat mutilation.
posted by orthogonality at 1:22 AM on October 28, 2009 [10 favorites]

When I was at the University of Guelph I had a vet student roommate who was offered a summer job as the Elephant Keeper's assistant at the African Lion Safari park. He turned it down because he didn't want to spend his summer shoveling elephant shit. Lucky for him. The guy who did take it was crushed to death.
posted by srboisvert at 2:19 AM on October 28, 2009

Thanks. That was adorable beyond belief. I think I may have to get the Bella and Tarra picture book for my sister as a Christmas gift.

How dumb was Disney to pitch a live action film to a sanctuary specifically designed to rehabilitate elephants who had been abused for human amusement? If anyone has the resources to make a good animated film about an elephant being friends with a dog, it's Disney, but it looks like they already blew that chance by asking for the dumbest thing possible.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:58 AM on October 28, 2009

I met an elephant once who did some work for the mob way back. He said he kept Jimmy Hoffa in his trunk.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:08 AM on October 28, 2009

Speaking of smart animals that look very little like humans and that (many) humans eat, I give you the octopus. Here's one example of their intelligence, you tube actually has some more videos. I am a meat eater but I abstain from eating intelligent animals . . . pigs are on my verboten list too.
posted by bearwife at 9:08 AM on October 28, 2009

I've reached the point where I almost can't watch or read anything with elephants any more; I just love everything about them, but it seems like it's impossible to have a story involving them that doesn't, at some point, reference the legacy of cruelty they have suffered because of humans.

That they are aware of it and remember it just makes it too painful for words. Even the happy stories feel bittersweet knowing what many of these animals have gone through.

I'm worried that one day my misanthropy will take full hold, and I'll decide that I like elephants more than I care about people.

That will be a bad day for everyone.
posted by quin at 9:09 AM on October 28, 2009

Animal companionship is weird. It freaks me out a little. I don't know what else to make of it except wow they think and have feelings!

Anyhow, once upon a time, I used to work in the apparrel industry. At the Action Sports Retail tradeshow in San Diego, the booth I belonged with brought, of all things, a goldfish bowl and two goldfish. Since the place is thick with skater kids etc, even at that time I thought, "bad idea." No need to have ready creatures for torture was my opinion. So for the two or three days of the show I kept my eye on the critters.

True to form, random other kids would come to the booth and, while their partners were talking sales or sponsorships, they would get bored and start on the fish.

But after two days of this the show finished and the fish somehow survived. While we were breaking down the booth, I went for a cola or a bagel or something, came back, and the fish were gone. "Where are the fish?" I asked one of me teammates, "Oh so-and-so went to dump them down the toilet."

I ran. And as he was pouring the water into the commode, I came running into the bathroom. "STOP" I commanded! And he did. "What's up dude," he said as a I took the fish away from him and put them in a Pepsi bottle with their water. I just shook my head and smiled.

Returning to the booth, the fish got thrown away. Twice. I had to find the bottle in the garbage twice. Honest, I was doing my best. Flying back to the Bay Area they were quite a conversation piece.

So I brought them back to Oakland with me. And I got them a nice big tank, with some nice goldfish-edible aquatic plants. No big deal.

Except for one thing. They were strange little fish. They recognized me when I entered the room. They seemed to have fun together. They seemed to enjoy one another's presence. At first I didn't really give it any thought. But my friends would bring it to my attention. "Dude, what's up with these fish?" I had no idea. A year passed. They were cool.

So anyhow, in the apparel industry, as everyone knows, indulgence and opulence reigns supreme. As luck would have it, my buddy came upon the Playboy mansion of aquariums. It was six-feet tall, shiny black finish with gold striping trim, and a HUGE aquarium bowl in the middle. It was something out of Vegas. He brings it over and says, "Put your goldfish in THAT." Wow. Sure.

It was a saltwater tank. And it was ugly. And it was ostentatious. But what the heck, I thought. I rinsed it, washed it with some Dr. Bronner's, then soaked it all down with distilled water and rinsed it again. Then I filled it with treated water, and put the fish in it.

Fortunately, I kept a gallon of the old water. Because whatever was in the tank before pretty immediately poisoned the fish and they started to die. Like fast.

I swooped them up and put them in a big jar with some of the old water and their plants. One of the fish recovered, but the other sank to the bottom. I was bummed.

But then something so crazy happened I will never forget it as long as I live. The one fish began diving down and nudging and moving the other fish around. It wouldn't let up. It was practically frantic. And I started to be horrified. That fish cares for the other one!

And it was actually distraught!

And I watched for the next five minutes transfixed as this scene played out. And then quite suddenly the one lame fish gave a small start, and sort of wriggled completely back to life.

I tell you up front, I am sensitive. I am a softy. And when that fish came back like that after the display off affection I saw, I started bawling. It was like I was witness to something very special.

The fish—whose names were Shelly and Sandy, btw—went on to live happily ever after with a happy-married lesbian couple.

Me? I became a vegetarian. It's been a fifteen years. Unless I or someone I know personally is up for killing an animal in order to eat it, I ain't eating it. Pass me a salad, thank you.

In the end, I don't know what the heck is going on with animals. But one thing I do know: It sure isn't what we think it is.
posted by humannaire at 9:28 AM on October 28, 2009 [24 favorites]

MetaFilter: Take a good look, America. TAKE A GOOD LOOK WORLD!
posted by bicyclefish at 2:52 PM on October 28, 2009

That they are aware of it and remember it just makes it too painful for words. Even the happy stories feel bittersweet knowing what many of these animals have gone through.

I'm worried that one day my misanthropy will take full hold, and I'll decide that I like elephants more than I care about people.

If you want to feel simultaneously much worse and much better, check out Patricia Highsmith's marvelous The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, in which lots of mistreated animals kill humans in a variety of gratifyingly dreadful ways. But the sad parts of the stories will rip your heart out.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:03 PM on October 28, 2009

I think I know where I'm taking my next vacation.
To be honest, if you do want to go to SA to see big game in an authentic setting, I'd recommend the parks in the north rather than Addo - such as Hluhluwe in KwaZulu-Natal, or Kruger...and I'm sure there are many more. Many private reserves have sprung up in the last few years in the south, on reclaimed farmland into which representatives of the 'Big Five' are imported from the north even if (e.g. giraffe) they never would have lived there naturally. And while the species compositions might be more 'correct' in Addo, you do see the demarcations of the old orange farms there too. It doesn't feel entirely 'authentic' - more like a zoo.
I do *highly* recommend Tsitsikamma on the south coast though - where you might catch a glimpse of the elusive Knysna elephant which lives in the dense coastal forest (The recent Robinson Crusoe tv show was filmed there, btw).
posted by Flashman at 6:40 PM on October 28, 2009

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