How Two Elephants Are Bringing Hope To Elephants Worldwide
Rosie and Opal aren't just retired circus elephants: They're beacons of hope for their endangered species. Hope Elephants, located in aptly named Hope, Maine, is a nonprofit sanctuary devoted to the well-being and conservation of elephants worldwide.
This is Opal (left) and Rosie (right), the elephants of Hope, Maine.
They were adopted in October 2012 by Dr. Jim Laurita, their former elephant handler, and taken to Maine to get the specific care they needed.
When Rosie first saw Laurita for the first time in years, she ran to him and put his hand in her mouth, a sign of affection among elephants.
Now, Rosie turns to Opal for comfort and vice versa.
The two have very distinct and complementary personalities: Opal is more impish and Rosie is a sweetheart to the core.
They are like sisters: They may annoy each other from time to time, but they undeniably love and comfort each other.
Opal and Rosie do tons of physical therapy to help with shoulder injuries and nerve damage. This is just as important as socializing.
The exercises, combined with cutting-edge treatments such as acupuncture, short-wave diathermy, hydrotherapy, and nutritional supplements, have helped both girls improve their range of motion and decrease the pain to their joints.
Rosie has had the most dramatic improvement: She's "gained muscle mass through our exercise and nutritional programs, she even became a little chubby and is now slowly losing weight to her ideal size." A huge part of her success is that her trunk function is improving: She used to only be able to swing her trunk to her left and now she can swing it to her right and has developed her own system of feeding herself where she sways and throws it up in her mouth. While she may not get her full trunk function in her lifetime, the improvements have given her the confidence she was sorely lacking throughout her life.
All of this goes on while tours watch the elephants and learn from the staff of knowledgable interns.
They engage with students, explaining the emotional depth of elephants as well as their complex language ability.
They have evolved beyond their basic needs so they've become complex, they are really animals who understand society, love, things that are beyond even your dog.
"The one rule is that everyone who has a question has to ask it,” Laurita told a tour group filled with tons of curious children.
At least once every tour, someone asks, "How do they do in the winters in Maine?"
The tour goes into Rosie and Opal's story and care but it also focuses on the plight of African and Asian elephants worldwide.
We knew we could successfully take care of these two and make them feel better. But that's just part of what we want to do. A major part of what we want to do is, these guys are being systematically driven to extinction and that's the real problem with the elephants. That they are, in Asia and Africa, being exterminated and so ... we use these guys as kind of ambassadors, let them speak through us, try to help their wild compatriots.
There are only 300,000 to 400,000 African elephants left, with 37,000 elephants being poached a year.
Asian elephants are even more critically endangered: There are only 30,000 left, meaning "there are more people in Fenway watching the Red Sox in an evening than there are Asian elephants on the planet," Stewart said.
The main threats to Asian elephants are symptoms affecting the entire planet: habitat loss and human population growth.
One main point of the talks is to emphasize that elephants are a "keystone species," meaning elephants are responsible for the well-being of other animals and plants in their ecosystem.
Quite simply, said Laurita, "If you're saving an elephant, you're saving everything else at the same time."
Even more than that, Dr. Laurita stressed, "Once you have a species like that and you have become the predator, which we are, you have the responsibility because ... we are outside their natural evolution."
Currently, Hope Elephants has developed an education program that will be piloted in Maine schools in the fall.
Teaching how ecology works instead of giving a dry definition, is one of the approaches to engaging the facility's visitors.
The organization's "lofty goals," as Stewart refers to them, are to continue developing its education program and expanding its reach beyond Maine.
Conservation, while you're thinking you want to save animals, you actually have to work with the people, which means education programs in elephant range countries ... If you can provide an economic structure that supports the community around elephants and you can inform them about the benefits of having the wildlife there then you're going to have sustainable long-term project. Whereas if you just stick a fence around elephants and say, "You can't go in there, you can't do this," then you're not going to have an impact, which is sort of the traditional colonial conservation approach.