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PAWS Sanctuary: Where Exploited Elephants Can Live Freely and Heal

By Courtney Fern

It was a warm summer day when NhRP Communications Director Lauren Choplin and I traveled from Los Angeles, where both of us are based, to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Galt, CA. PAWS is a world-renowned sanctuary that provides lifelong care and refuge for exotic animals who were previously held captive and exploited by circuses, zoos, and private individuals. PAWS is also the sanctuary that has agreed to care for our elephant clients, Minnie, Karen, and Beulah, should a Connecticut court declare them legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty or their current owners voluntarily relinquish them to sanctuary.

As we passed through the iron gates, emblazoned with images of the species the sanctuary cares for, we were met by Catherine Doyle and Ed Stewart. Catherine has long been an advocate for the end of elephant captivity and is an expert in their needs and care. Ed is the president and co-founder of PAWS and oversees its operations. He is a passionate and outspoken leader for the movement to end the captivity of exotic animals.

As we drove down to the elephants’ territory I was taken by the sanctuary’s tranquility. Nestled in a valley in northern California, the sanctuary provides the elephants with vast open land to themselves, free from any sign of human civilization, and filled with the peaceful sounds of nature. As we approached the far edge of the elephants’ range, we saw two female African elephants appear at the top of a hill. They at first slowly came down to see who was there, and quickly ran down to the gate when they realized Ed was one of the visitors. The elephants were Mara and Thika. Mara was one of the first elephants to find sanctuary at PAWS.

A wild born African elephant, she experienced the trauma of her family being slaughtered during a cull, and at two years old, she was captured and sent to the Catskill Game Farm in New York. From there Mara suffered nearly a decade of abuse and exploitation at a roadside zoo in California. Thankfully, advocates and PAWS were able to rescue her, and she has been at PAWS since 1990. Thika is a captive born African elephant who was born at the Toronto Zoo and arrived at PAWS in 2011 after the Toronto Zoo board voted to close its elephant program.

Next we drove through the main path at the sanctuary, getting glimpses of the elephants as they went about their day.

Ed then took us to see Nicholas, one of the two bull elephants at the sanctuary. Nicholas’ background is much like that of our elephant clients. Nicholas, an Asian elephant, was born in 1993 at a circus breeding facility. There he was permanently separated from his mother and trained to ride a tricycle and perform in a circus. The circus retired him when he became difficult to manage and he was eventually sent to PAWS. Given the trauma inflicted upon him, it took time for Nicholas to trust humans again; the PAWS staff used positive reinforcement to help him become comfortable with medical check-ups. Ed and an elephant caretaker showed us how they care for Nicholas using a method called protected contact. By using gentle guides and treats, the staff at PAWS is able to indicate to Nicholas which body part they need to look at and he willingly puts that body part, such as a foot, in the designated area. At the end of the routine checkup he was given his favorite treat, bran! That was it, and Nicholas went back to his habitat to spend his day however he chose to.

Visiting PAWS was a powerful and moving experience. There, the elephants’ fundamental right to bodily liberty is respected. They are well cared for and live in a way that allows them to regain and retain their autonomy. They have the freedom to move about, engage in their innate behaviors, reside in an environment similar their natural habitat, and live with members of their own species. Beulah, Karen, and Minnie deserve the same.

To learn more about PAWS, visit their website.

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