When I first met Tina, a 33-year-old elephant, she was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. She was born in captivity and had spent much of her life alone in a cramped, barren pen.
As the cofounder of The Elephant Sanctuary, the United States’ largest natural habitat refuge for captive elephants, I can assure you that elephants desire companionship and freedom just as much as you and I do.
For elephants, family is everything. Births are joyous celebrations; deaths are mourned. Adults share news and provide support while youngsters play together under watchful eyes. Female elephants stay at their mothers’ side their entire lives.
Tina was born in a captive breeding program. When she was a toddler she was torn away from her mother and sold to a zoo. Captivity had taken a heavy toll on her. Lack of exercise, improper diet and years of standing on unnaturally hard surfaces caused her to develop debilitating arthritis and osteomyilities, a terminal foot disease.
Thankfully, the zoo staff realized that Tina deserved a better life and rallied to have her retired to The Elephant Sanctuary in August 2003. Adopted into a family of six sisters, including Winkie from Burma (Myanmar) and Sissy from Sri Lanka, Tina finally had a herd to call her own!
Elephants have a remarkable capacity to create new families with fellow survivors of captivity. Playful Tarra became one of Tina’s favorite companions. Sissy, who carried a tire around with her as if it were a security blanket, routinely shared time with Tina, especially at night when she and Winkie returned to the barn. Winkie, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, often hung out with Tina under her favorite oak tree.
Tina’s magnetic personality captivated all of her sanctuary caretakers. Each developed a deep bond with her. We watched with pleasure as she maneuvered her way into the woods, swatted at butterflies, and played enthusiastically with the plastic 50-gallon drum suspended from a mighty oak tree. She chirped incessantly and we often found ourselves singing along when she broke into song.
We worked hard to heal her feet, watching over her with caution and guarded optimism. Her positive attitude and strong will to survive were an inspiration to all.
Tina soon became the darling of the late night ele-cam, our live streaming video. Fans tuned in to watch as she savored her dinner while receiving her nightly foot care. And everyone shared her excitement when, following foot soaks, her enrichment toy was filled with her favorite treat—purple grapes.
Then in mid-July 2004, we watched with concern as Tina’s condition worsened. Her osteomyilities was critical, and managing her pain had become a challenge. One week later, on July 21, I watched in desperation as Tina slowly lay down on the barn floor for the first time since her arrival. I knew what this meant. I couldn’t help myself, and I begged her to stay. But she just looked at me in her tender Tina way, and I knew that her decision was made. She calmly closed her eyes and peacefully passed away surrounded by her adopted family of humans and elephants.
Our sorrow covered the Sanctuary like a heavy cloud. The suddenness of Tina’s death filled us with inconsolable sorrow and unanswered questions. Later, a necropsy showed that a heart problem, very possibly a genetic defect, caused her death. But we could not escape knowing that two decades of osteomyilities had caused her a lifetime of pain.
As we humans busied ourselves with the details of laying Tina to rest, her herd mates held a vigil over her body. Tarra was the first to come in from the habitat to visit Tina. Sissy and Winkie, who had stayed with her the longest, spent the entire night and next day standing quietly over their departed friend. Visibly distraught, Winkie pushed and prodded Tina as if trying to get her to wake up. As Tina was being buried, Winkie and Tarra stood at the edge of the grave, unwilling to allow the bulldozer to cover Tina’s body with dirt.
Their grief was heartbreaking. Tarra kept grabbing my hand and guiding me toward Tina in a gesture to “go get her.” All three girls spent the evening and the next day at the grave. Before they left, Sissy gently placed her beloved tire on top of Tina’s grave like a wreath.
Tina embodied love and compassion, and I feel blessed to have known and loved her. Watching her experience the joys of freedom and friendship was a wonder.
I remember the first time she left the barn and entered the world of trees and vegetation. Using her sore feet like shovels, she gleefully flung mounds of dirt onto her back. She spent hours in the shade of the forest canopy immersed in nature, savoring her new home. Later in the barn, she emanated tranquility. As she leisurely munched on fresh cut bamboo stocks, she appeared to be miles away, almost as if she were in a dream.
Like Tina, Mali—the Manila Zoo’s lone elephant—deserves to know freedom and family. Mali has been in solitary confinement for far too long. Nothing would make her happier than spending the last 30-plus years of her life as part of a herd.
Carol Buckley is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Elephant Aid International. She rescues, rehabilitates and provides hands-on care and compassion-based training for needy elephants worldwide.