In Memory of Hanako

When I met Hanako less than two months ago, it was obvious to me that she was nearing the end of her life.

Hanako had spent close to seven decades in one of the most deprived environments I’ve seen.

Every surface in her barn and yard was covered with unyielding, moisture-robbing, highly abrasive concrete. There was not a blade of grass, a tree or a patch of dirt anywhere in the small space.

While at the zoo I learned that Hanako had recently stopped lying down to sleep. Instead of spending several hours each night on her side sleeping, she spent a lesser amount of time leaning against the barn wall, dozing.

After studying her records it was clear that Hanako’s appetite and drinking habits had also changed. The times when she would refuse to eat grew more and more frequent.

Hanako also refused to use her outside pool or allow her keepers to bathe her. As result her skin was dehydrated and her legs were stained with urine.

The staff could not account for these changes in Hanako’s behavior. But such changes are to be expected of an elephant of Hanako’s age.

It was heartbreaking to observe that her eyesight was failing, she shivered continually and she was physically inactive.

Each morning, until at least a month before her death, Hanako would walk the few feet from the barn to the outside concrete yard. There she would stand and engage in stereotypical behavior for hours before taking the few labored steps back inside her barn at the end of the day.

My first afternoon at the zoo I witnessed a change in Hanako’s behavior. Without any obvious provocation she seemed to startle from her catatonic state and began moving around her small yard.

Then the barn door opened and she became vocal and animated. She approached the door, placed her foot in the track and engaged in the most bizarre stereotypic routine I’d ever seen.  She pushed her toe into the track, pulled back as if her foot was caught in it, removed her foot and then repeated the sequence twelve times. Keepers later told me she did this stereotypical sequence every time before she entered the barn. Not always twelve times—sometimes more, sometimes less.

After completing her stereotypic ritual, Hanako rushed into the barn, moving with an uncharacteristic urgency as if someone was trying to keep her from entering. Her eyes lit up and she became very vocal.

I assumed she was excited about the pile of fresh vegetables and grass on the floor. But it was not the food. It was her keepers she was focused on.

Hanako was obviously excited to see her keepers and anxious for them to pet her. She offered her foot through the steel bars that divided the elephant and keeper spaces, leaned up against the bars and turned to receive pets on her backside and hip.

She chattered to her keepers the entire time, soliciting and savoring their every touch. This was a side of Hanako I had not seen—her comfort with and attachment to her keepers.

The keepers appeared to enjoy the interaction as well. But fifteen minutes later, Hanako’s allocated social time was over. As the keepers turned their attention to barn duties, I watched as Hanako slipped back into her detached state of mind.

The thermostat was set, water barrel checked, food swept into a neat pile, lights turned off, doors closed and keepers gone again until tomorrow. Once again Hanako was alone.

Failed by the system

Hanako was denied a natural life of freedom with her natal family simply because humans are intrigued by this species. But humans failed her time and time again.

Even if they wanted to, the zoo staff was unable to evaluate Hanako’s health scientifically. Hanako and her keepers weren’t trained to carry out basic health checks and her antiquated facilities did not provide a safe environment for medical testing or treatment. Aside from tranquilizing Hanako, there was no safe way to compile a comprehensive medical work up.

The government owns and runs all the zoos in Japan. The keepers are rotated throughout the zoo system, transferred to a different zoo every two years. Knowing the social complexity of elephants, having keepers rotate in and out of Hanako’s life so often would have been stressful, even traumatic.

Decades ago Hanako had an extremely close relationship with one of her keepers. After he died she reportedly became aggressive and as result was kept chained for a length of time.

It is reasonable to assume that Hanako suffered both physically and psychologically from her lack of companionship and physical activity. In Hanako’s case, her social isolation was the most detrimental. But the damage inflicted on her by her isolation was never measured.

Taking comfort in the familiar

Hanako had a decades-long reputation of reacting negatively to changes in her facility and routine. As she aged, her tendency to be inflexible increased.

Weeks before Hankako died, the zoo installed a safety fence on the outside wall of her barn. Their hope was that by providing a secure outside space, the keepers and Hanako would spend more quality time together, something we all agreed would benefit her. Although the fence was not one of my recommendations, I completely understood why the zoo made the effort.

Unfortunately, directly following fence construction, Hanako refused to leave her barn. Since the construction was the most obvious change in Hanako’s life, it was blamed for her behavior.

In her tender psychological state Hanako might have been frightened and even traumatized by the noisy power tools drilling into the wall of her barn. The noise and vibrations most certainly could be heard and felt by Hanako, locked inside. Although it is reasonable to believe she was upset by the construction, another scenario should also be considered.

Hanako was dying, growing weaker day by day. Apparently she derived comfort from being inside her barn. She could conserve energy she would otherwise have wasted walking out to a barren yard that provided neither shade nor shelter from the cold. In her condition, the barn was likely the most comfortable place for her.

Too late for Hanako but not for other elephants

The zoo said that a necropsy will be conducted. The results will most likely point to death by natural causes. It is true that Hanako’s body condition was good for an elephant of her age, but there is no way to determine what her emotional and psychological condition were.

Against all odds, Hanako lived to the ripe old age of 69. Surprisingly, she was not emaciated or crippled and did not develop osteomyelitis or the pressure wounds that are so common among elephants kept on concrete. But even though her body served her well, captivity took its toll on her heart and mind.

Hanako’s celebrity increased near the end of her life as she became the focus of a worldwide effort to move her. It’s unfortunate her deprived existence didn’t come to light five years ago, ten years ago or even two decades ago, when she could have benefited from being moved.

But, although Hanako did not benefit personally from her celebrity, other elephants will.

Immediately after Hanako’s death the zoo announced the good news that it will not replace her with another elephant.

The truth is that Hanako is irreplaceable.



When Jenny Met Shirley

Jenny and Shirley first met each other in 1976 at the Carson and Barnes Circus winter quarters in Oklahoma. Jenny was a youngster, newly imported from Asia. Shirley was recovering from a broken leg she sustained from an elephant attack many months prior.

Circuses are known to keep elephants chained side-by-side according to size, largest to smallest. Since Shirley was unstable, having only three good legs, she was chained at the far end of the picket line away from the big elephants and right next to Jenny.

Their time together was short-lived, only a couple of months. In early spring of 1977, Jenny was sent out on the road to perform with the circus and Shirley was sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, LA.

Twenty-three years passed. The next time they saw each other was when Jenny stepped inside her barn at The Elephant Sanctuary on July 6, 1999.

Jenny and Shirley’s reunion

Recently, a friend emailed me a question: “During the filming of the “Urban Elephant” documentary, what was going on in your mind (and heart) when Shirley and Jenny were trying to get close to each other?”

I realize many of you may be curious as well, so I decide to share with all of you.

The “Urban Elephant” film crew had been at the Sanctuary all day and had just left for dinner when Jenny approached the barn. She and Shirley had not yet met.

When Jenny first stepped inside the barn she was calm, but when she saw Shirley she became agitated. She reached through the stall toward Shirley, intensely focused on her. Shirley showed little interest but finally responded to Jenny’s attention by stepping close enough to be touched.

Jenny’s agitation grew. She extended her trunk all the way through the bars, reaching out, touching, talking to Shirley. Shirley stood parallel to the corral allowing Jenny to touch all over her, but continued to show very little interest. Jenny began to work herself up into frenzy, very uncharacteristic behavior for her.

Scott and I were sitting inside the barn only a few feet away, watching. I was filming.

Jenny was animated and anxious; she wanted to get closer to Shirley. Shirley remained calm. But when Jenny placed her truck up to Shirley’s mouth, Shirley froze. Her posture changed, she became a little rigid and then turned to look at Jenny. She reached over to touch Jenny’s mouth and what followed was undefinably powerful and life changing for all present.

Looking straight into Jenny’s eyes, Shirley erupted into a huge baritone roar. Caught completely off guard, I thought a bomb and an earthquake had simultaneously hit the barn. Her bellows ignited Jenny’s bellows, which together literally shook the barn.

With her head held high and mouth gaping open, Shirley roared and gently touched all over Jenny’s smiling face. Jenny’s body immediately relaxed as she continued to grope and pull at Shirley through the bars and bellow. The volume of their shared roars was deafening.

The energy in the barn was so intense I had to step outside the door to catch my breath. Seriously, I could not breathe. I did not yet fully understand what was happening. I had only seen such a display of emotion once before when a baby elephant at a breeding facility was separated from his mother for the first time. The two nearly killed themselves trying to climb over the corral to get back together. Their roars were one and the same with Jenny and Shirley’s.

This memory flashed though my mind and within seconds I understood. Jenny and Shirley had known each other before and during that time had forged an intensely close relationship. This was a reunion.

The powerfully joyful vocalizations continued for some time, with Jenny and Shirley groping each other all over. I cannot convey how thick the love was in the air. I was too caught up in the emotional exchange to register just how long this went on but it could have lasted close to 30 minutes.

By the time the volume of their reunion subsided, Shirley was emitting short, sweet sighs and Jenny had melted into the steel bars that separated them, their trunks draped across each other faces.

I knew I had just witnessed a miracle, the first of many that I would be privileged to witness in the years to come.


Bunny — what a sensitive and loving lady. It was a joy to bring her to the Sanctuary. Her immersion into the habitat and bonds with the other elephants exceeded even our wildest dreams. She made an immediate and complete transition into Sanctuary life. In fact, she was the first elephant to sleep under the stars and was responsible for her sisters beginning to sleep outdoors overnight as well.

I spent five years working for Bunny’s release from the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, IN. The zoo had been her home for four decades. From the time my effort began, I placed a weekly phone call to the zoo to discuss Bunny and her possible relocation. Ron Young, the zoo director, and Ted Grannan, the assistant director, were gracious but firm: Bunny would never leave the zoo.

They continued to accept my calls and humor my periodic visits, but their response to my interest in discussing Bunny’s relocation was a consistent no. I realized that these were kind and caring people. My goal was to familiarize them with the Sanctuary so they could understand what we had to offer to their beloved Bunny.

On one of my many visits to the zoo, Bunny was having “play time” with her next-door neighbor Daisy, a hippo. They had lived in adjacent enclosures for four decades. On special occasions Daisy was allowed into Bunny’s yard for a visit. It was quite cute to watch, but sad to realize how these two had to rely on another very different species for companionship. Bunny gently herded Daisy around the yard, as much as one can herd a hippo, with Daisy paying little attention.

My persistence began to pay off, but in a roundabout way. Ron soon began passing my phone calls off to Ted, who remained pleasant and engaging. He would listen patiently to my latest update and end the conversation with the zoo’s mantra, “Bunny will never leave the Mesker Park Zoo.”  My no-pressure-but-let-me-tell-you-this approach was sincere — and effective. We shared a common interest in Bunny’s welfare, which soon brought us closer together. My message began to get through and I saw that Ted was beginning to question the wisdom of their position.

Until this time, I was told that Bunny could not be moved for a myriad of reasons, including that it would break her heart to leave the zoo. With stories about our other retirees as evidence to contradict that concern, Ron finally admitted that the idea simply could not be considered because the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) would not allow it.

After years of open communication and education I was able to demonstrate that Bunny not only deserved to move to the Sanctuary but her very health depended on it. Her enclosure offered limited natural substrate and her pool had been empty for years. As result of years spent on the hard surfaces of her exhibit, Bunny had developed a chronic foot disease that could soon develop into osteomyilis. This captivity-induced disease is responsible for the deaths of nearly all adult captive Asian elephants living in zoos. Bunny was on her way to being yet another statistic but I knew that Sanctuary life could spare her such a fate.

Bunny was surrounded by a loving staff, attentive veterinarian and adoring public. They began to grasp the gravity of Bunny’s condition and, ultimately, the people responsible for Bunny’s care, including Ron and Ted, became the champions for her release.

On September 29, 1999 Bunny arrived at the Sanctuary. Her retirement was celebrated by two communities united by one deeply loved elephant.