Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a book called Seeking Sanctuary: A Doctor’s Search for Hope Amid Despair. It shows how humans and nonhuman animals across the globe can help each other recover from trauma and begin to heal— an experience known as the “Phoenix Effect.” University of Chicago Press has scheduled it for publication in Spring 2018.
Through my work as a physician and human and animal rights advocate, I’ve gathered surprising, enlightening stories of the strength and resilience of people and animals who have risen from the ashes after extreme pain and suffering.
Like people, animals can suffer physically – and mentally. For example, in 2011, my colleagues and I published the first of a series of studies showing how traumatized chimpanzees can develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and compulsive disorders.
Fortunately, animals can also heal after severe pain and suffering – offering a model for recovery and hope for how we can all rise from the depths of suffering.
These stories of strength and resilience have led me to extraordinary places – literal and figurative sanctuaries I call “Phoenix Zones” – where the injured heal and thrive.
I recently visited a remarkable, newly created Phoenix Zone – a place where elephants (the first animals in whom mental disorders like PTSD were widely publicized) will have the opportunity to recover from decades of isolation, abuse, and confinement.
In 2012, Scott and Kat Blais launched the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, which aims to create vast spaces around the world for captive elephants to recover from decades of physical and emotional trauma. Working with local advocates, they recently opened their first project in Brazil. Throughout South America, there are growing efforts to ban the use of elephants in entertainment, triggering their release from circuses and zoos; this is one important reason the existence of a sanctuary in the region will be vital in the months and years to come.
Maia and Guida were the first two elephants to join the Brazil sanctuary. Though little is known of their early lives, they were likely stolen from their mothers, as infants, from a jungle in Asia. Shipped as cargo to South America, they were forced to participate in circus performances, likely “broken” in the same way other captive elephants are.
When Kat first met Guida at the farm where she and Maia were kept, she was severely underweight and compulsively swayed and bobbed her head. Maia showed aggression toward Guida, even though they were each chained in a small area and kept apart by an electric fence. Abnormal behaviors like aggression are common in confinement, and they can be a sign of suffering.
At the close of the dry season, my husband Nik and I visited the Brazil sanctuary. We happened to arrive the same day Maia and Guida did. After driving twenty miles on a red dirt road, we came upon the sanctuary. We arrived at nightfall. It was lush and devoid of artificial light. As we learned over the course of a week, the sanctuary occupies a diverse landscape of thick vegetation, palm trees, sandy soil, and rocky streams.
International media and Facebook Live captured Maia and Guida’s first steps toward freedom.
With freedom and the beginning of a more sovereign life, Maia and Guida quickly showed a different side of their relationship. While Nik and I helped clean their indoor-outdoor care center, I heard one of the sweetest sounds. I looked up and saw the girls in the field, trumpeting, rumbling, and ear flapping – all signs of joy, as they were forever free of the chains that bound them for so long. Though they have a long climb ahead, they are already extraordinary Phoenixes.
Soon the two will be joined by other elephants. With almost three thousand acres, the sanctuary has plenty of space for all fifty captive elephants across the continent.
Scott and Kat continue to prepare for the arrival of other elephants. Step by step, they are expanding the area the elephants have to wander through and rest their beautiful minds. As Scott and Kat have learned – precisely through their sanctuary work – it is possible to offer captive elephants an important degree of sovereignty, which makes all of their hard work worthwhile. The elephants discover who they are, express themselves, learn from their mistakes, and make choices they couldn’t make in their previous situations. They learn to control their own destinies.
As Scott and Kat have also learned over time, we can’t really know the elephants until they’ve had the opportunity to get to know themselves. And they can begin to know themselves only when they are given the sovereignty they need and deserve.
I’ve found many parallels between how people and animals can recover after severe trauma – and Phoenix Zones like this one in Brazil offer many lessons we might miss if we’re not open to seeing them. They underscore the importance of freedom, sovereignty, love, justice, and hope – for people and animals.
How do you think we can use these lessons to create sanctuary across the globe – for everyone?