Keith: “Now, you co-founded the nation’s largest elephant sanctuary, The Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary, in 1995, and… Can you tell us a bit about how you founded it and about the sanctuary?”
Scott: “Sure, absolutely. And exactly the story you just talked about is part of the reason why we founded it. When we actually were working with the Nashville Zoo it was in a different location than it is right now. And we had hoped to develop something with them, something more expansive. They had about 35 acres of land and our goal there was to expand the concept of elephant exhibits and give elephants more space.
And we thought that the public would really appreciate this. This being a much more natural behavior and what really drove this home was while we were there we were available to answer questions in public and the first two questions when the elephant was in the exhibit was ‘Can we ride her?’ and ‘Does she do tricks?’ And, it is like, this is her value.
We took the same elephant at the same zoo and allowed her to graze in a picnic area and we had asked the public just to stand on the sidewalk and the number one comment was ‘We did not know elephants ate grass’ and that was the trigger for us. It is like ‘What are we doing?,’ ‘What are we really teaching people?’ Not only what are we doing to elephants but what are we contributing to society by continuing to have these animals available to the public. To learn their value is to entertain? No. We have to teach these people that their value is who they are and what they truly are.
So that is what really… that one of the final triggers is when the zoo decided they did not want to put the money into it because it was a new concept and during that same summer is when Tyke the elephant killed the trainer in Honolulu and there is a new movie out about Tyke and her history… and then she was… ran out onto the streets and she was brutally gunned down. And that is when we said ‘We have to do this, we have to find a way, uh, we have to create a space where elephants can have a new life, where these elephants that do not fit into the mold of typical captivity of zoos and circuses where they have somewhere to go. Elephants that have social issues, aggressive issues…’
And we started with a hundred acres in Tennessee. We got a loan for the property and we just took a chance. We tried to get other people to help us and everyone said ‘Great idea’ but how is it going to be funded for the long term, and we honestly did not know. But we did know that we needed to take a chance on a healthy future for these elephants.”
Keith: “How large is the sanctuary?”
Scott: “It started off… the Sanctuary in Tennessee started off at about a hundred acres, a hundred and twelve acres, and now it is 2700 acres. We grew because of the elephants. We did not know what to expect when we started the sanctuary. Were they going to become more rouge? Were they going to become wild without dominance? Were they going to truly be able to adapt to a more social life again?
Eventually what we saw is that they did adapt; adapt in most cases seamlessly. Elephants with horrific pasts, just completely morphed and evolved into completely new beings. And what we saw was once they started to recover, they started to go back to a more migratory nature.
And when we first started the sanctuary we said ‘Okay, we are probably going to need about ten acres per elephant to sustain their dietary need’ which is about right. But we realized that it does not matter if it is one elephant or ten elephants they need the same amount of space because the space required is about the psychological stimulation more than it is the food and they need substantially more space for this desire to meet this need than they do to meet their dietary needs.”
Keith: “I think one of the things many of us forget is that elephants are probably the, uh… one of the most, if not the most intelligent of all social animals, as far as it goes, that graze. And a lot of times they lose that social aspect when they are in captivity. That can be really, I imagine, really a frightful experience for them and a very cruel…”
Scott: “Well, they become a shell of their existence. They truly do and there is no way to underestimate… to fully define this, I guess, because they become a true fraction of who they should be and they are labeled as such in captivity. Elephants that have not had a social experience or had the opportunity, the autonomy and the protection, they are labeled as anti-social because they do not get along with their one other or two other companions.
And when this same elephant that is labeled an anti-social is in an environment where they get to choose their companions, when they have the protection to walk away from a challenging situation and just seek a little solitude, it allows them more comfort and more security to then unfold into a social animal. But you have to have the nurturing autonomy of protection that we all need, that all social sentient beings need in order to be a truly social being.
Same thing with dogs or cats, you know, a dog or humans, if they are not properly socialized, if they do not have the protection or security they are going to become reclusive and that is what happens to these elephants. And I do not know that you can say it is fearful for them, I think it is an adaptation to their environment and it is just nature making the best out of a bad situation and they do not always realize how bad it was until they see how good it can be. And that is when you see the remarkable journey.”
To Be Continued: Elephant Expert Shares His Amazing Story of His Life With Captive Elephants, His Appalling Discovery of the Mistreatment of Those Elephants and His Vow to Provide Sanctuary & Healing For Captive & Performing Elephants Worldwide : Part 3
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Images: Scott Blais and Ramba giant QTip FB GSE post of Nov 20 2015 & The Daily Mail AP Global Sanctuary For Elephants First Elephants Maia & Guida
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