Today I honor the memory of Barbara, a sacred being who blessed us with her extraordinary wisdom and kindness.  She left us ten years ago today on my birthday. Namaste, dear friend, I will forever cherish our time spent together on this journey. 


Hurray! Billie-Sue is bracelet-free! The chain that was securely attached to her ankle upon arrival at the Sanctuary has been removed.

What a transition Billie-Sue has experienced since her arrival with the Divas. Her transformation has been steady and inspiring. 

She arrived with Frieda, labeled a killer, described as dangerous and unmanageable. Prior to her release to us, Billie-Sue was held in solitary confinement in a steel cage at the Hawthorn Corporation for ten years. Upon arrival, she was fearful, defensive and heavily guarded.

this photo was taken days after Billie-Sue arrived at the Sanctuary March 2006

In the beginning, Billie-Sue became suspicious whenever we focused on the leg chain. That is when we began to refer to it as an bracelet, to consciously change the perception and meaning of the chain. Shortly after she arrived, caregivers began using T-Touch in protected contact to desensitize her to the human touch. Time passed and she began to relax. With time and patience Billie-Sue allowed caregivers to hand feed her through a protective barrier and take trunk swabs for TB testing, but still she remained guarded.

Billie-Sue, Frieda and Lizzie became inseparable friends

When Liz was diagnosed with TB, she and Frieda and Billie-Sue — her two best friends — made the physical move to the quarantine compound, a small barn and yard adjacent to the main barn. In this secluded location, away from the constant activity of Debbie, Ronnie, Lottie and Minnie, Billie-Sue found comfort and security and blossomed. She wandered the small yard without concern of turning a corner to be confronted by Minnie.

This increased security led to this fantastic development of Billie-Sue shedding her bracelet. What a fabulous feeling this must be for her, forever free of chains. Although her leg chain was never used at the Sanctuary, the fact that she has now shed it is wonderful. Bless you Billie-Sue and all the caregivers who worked diligently to free her from that chain. Thank you.

a need for change, right here at home

I recently returned from a lengthy trip to Asia, where I taught traditional mahouts (trainers) a gentler, more humane way of training and working with captive elephants.

Viewing the undercover video exposing the abuse of Tai, the elephant star of “Water for Elephants,” was unnerving. The techniques circus trainers in America use are identical to the traditional, antiquated and abusive methods of breaking and training elephants used by mahouts in Asia that have been handed down for centuries.

As in Asia, American circuses embody tradition, animal abuse for public entertainment. Being involved in the circus for nearly fifteen years gave me ample exposure to this abuse. Even though we have made huge advances in our knowledge about elephant intelligence and suffering, this tradition has, sadly, thus far failed to evolve.

There is an alternative to these harsh training methods, if indeed elephants must be trained. I am pioneering the field of positive reinforcement training in the traditional free contact environment in Asia. Although I do not condone the commercial use of elephants, I am realistic enough to know that my personal concerns will not put a stop to the shows and rides that exploit elephants there. Only through education targeted at elephant trainers, mahouts, and the insatiable public can the abuse be curtailed and eventually stopped.

It is uncanny that Tai’s abuse was exposed as result of her portrayal of an abused elephant in “Water for Elephants.” By enforcing existing regulations and strengthening laws to protect the innocent, the antiquated training practices of the circus in America can be eradicated.

I am of the firm belief that if the only way an elephant can be on public display is to be dominated with harsh control methods then we, as a society, are required to forfeit the opportunity to have elephants in captivity.

Ngo-Hok, aka Jon, at Elephant’s World

Elephant’s World was one of the locations where I was fortunate to introduce positive reinforcement target training. I will return there to continue training, and to consult on facility development and elephant training and care.

During my last visit, Elephant’s World owner agreed to the idea of constructing a large fenced-in area so the elephants can be kept off chains. Fundraising is underway and hopefully by the time I return to Thailand in the fall, the fence will be in place.

Ngo-Hok, aka Jon, the young male elephant with whom I worked, has a history of aggression. Personally, I believe he was emotionally scarred by the traditional brutal training he received prior to coming to Elephant’s World. From the first session he responded enthusiastically to positive reinforcement target training. I was at Elephant’s World for only about a week, but during that time Ngo-Hok/Jon excelled at demonstrating to the mahouts that he can learn and will respond favorably, at least to this technique of training.

Unfortunately, the language barrier was a challenge. The mahouts tried to understand what I was telling them but they simply could not. Even though Ngo-Hok/Jon was brilliant during his target training sessions, the mahouts failed to continue the training after I left.

The staff needs further training to grasp the concept and develop the technique of this training which is so foreign to them. I look forward to returning to Elephant’s World to continue the training. This time I will recruit a translator, which is the only way to ensure that the mahouts understand the philosophy and learn the technique.

Following is an interview that an Elephant’s World volunteer did with Piza, Ngo-Hok/Jon’s mahout. The volunteer posed the questions as if I had asked them.


Q: How is Ngo-Hok/Jon doing?

He is doing better since the last time you saw him. Sometimes he is stubborn, and then I cannot climb on this back. He is more often around the other elephants, during swimming and eating, but I have to stay close to him because he is playful and annoys the older female.

He is now very close with Rom Sai, the full-grown tusker, like a father and son. He has escaped a couple of times in the last months but he comes back to stay with Rom Sai. When eating together, he likes to take food from the other elephants. Only Rom Sai will allow this. I believe the other elephants will hit him if I am not there.

Last evening I didn’t take him to the forest because he did not let me get on his back earlier in the day — he was stubborn. In this way I am trying to teach him. Also, after he is stubborn he will try to escape when I take him out of the forest. I am trying to teach him that if he obeys and allows me on his back, he will be rewarded with a trip to the forest.

Ngo-Hok/Jon is growing; he is now taller than me. In one month he has gained about 10 kgs. He now weighs close to 800 kgs and eats about 80 kgs a day.


Q: Do you think Ngo-Hok/Jon can stay with the other elephants?

He can stay with other elephants. He can stay close to Rom Sai, who will protect him. For now he can stay with the females as well because they are older women and he is still young. But as he gets older and new female elephants come in, it will be a problem.

Q: How do you feel around Ngo-Hok/Jon since he tried to hurt you?

I feel better around him now, but have to be careful all the time. After the accident I was a little bit afraid, but not anymore. When I am with him anyone can come close, but if I am not there, people cannot come close. If I have one day off, Jon is put on hobbles because the other mahouts cannot deal with him. Right now Ngo-Hok/Jon only listens to me.


Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Carol?

I think she should come again and see Ngo-Hok/Jon for herself.

A change for the better

As soon as we learned that the CEO of our website server GoDaddy had taken the life of a wild elephant we began the process of changing servers.

It is unfortunate but true that money can buy most anything, including permission to kill. We recognize the hardships that villagers suffer in elephant home ranges; the human/elephant conflict is a serious problem. But killing a raiding elephant is not the solution. Nature has a way of filling all niches. As soon as that elephant was killed, another would fill the vacant niche, taking his/her place as the next “problem elephant”.

The problem may appear to be caused by the elephant, but, indeed, it is caused by humans — by people encroaching on elephant land. I feel we humans must take responsibility for the havoc we cause in wild habitats and find viable long-term solutions so that wildlife will survive and thrive.

Thank you for ChippingIn to help us cover the cost of changing servers.