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Home Is Where the Herd Is

For elephants, family is everything. Births are joyous celebrations, and deaths are mourned. Adults share news and offer support while youngsters play together under watchful eyes. Female elephants stay at their mothers' side their entire lives.

When I first met Tina, she was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Born in captivity, the 33-year-old elephant had spent much of her life alone in a cramped, barren pen.

As the co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary, the US' largest natural habitat refuge for captive elephants, I can assure you that elephants desire companionship and freedom just as much as you and I do.

For elephants, family is everything. Births are joyous celebrations, and deaths are mourned. Adults share news and offer support while youngsters play together under watchful eyes. Female elephants stay at their mothers' side their entire lives.

Tina was born in a captive-breeding program. As a mere toddler, she was torn away from her mother and sold to a zoo. Captivity had taken a heavy toll on her. Lack of exercise, an improper diet and years of standing on unnaturally hard surfaces caused her to develop debilitating arthritis and osteomyelitis, a terminal foot disease.

Thankfully, the zoo staff realised that Tina deserved a better life and rallied to have her retired to The Elephant Sanctuary in August of 2003. Adopted into a family of six sisters, including Winkie from Myanmar and Sissy from Sri Lanka, Tina finally had a herd to call her own!

Elephants have a remarkable capacity to create new families with fellow survivors of captivity. Playful Tarra became one of Tina's favourite companions. Sissy, who carried a tire around with her as if it were a security blanket, routinely shared time with Tina, especially at night, when she and Winkie returned to the barn. Winkie, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, often hung out with Tina under her favourite oak tree.

Tina's magnetic personality captivated all her sanctuary caretakers. Each of us developed a deep bond with her. We watched with pleasure as she manoeuvred her way into the woods, swatted at butterflies and played enthusiastically with the plastic 50-gallon drum suspended from a mighty oak tree. She chirped incessantly, and we often found ourselves singing along when she broke into song.

We worked hard to heal her feet, watching over her with caution and guarded optimism. Her positive attitude and strong will to survive were an inspiration to everyone.

Tina soon became the darling of the late-night ele-cam - our live-streaming video. Fans tuned in to watch as Tina savoured her dinner while receiving her nightly foot care. And everyone shared in her excitement when, following foot soaks, her enrichment toy was filled with her favourite treat - purple grapes.

Then, in mid-July of 2004, we watched with concern as Tina's condition worsened. Her osteomyelitis was critical. Managing her pain had become a challenge. One week later, on July 21, I watched in desperation as Tina slowly lay down on the barn floor for the first time since her arrival. I knew what this meant. I couldn't help myself, and I begged her to stay. But she just looked at me in her tender Tina way, and I knew that her decision had been made. She calmly closed her eyes and peacefully passed away, surrounded by her adopted family of humans and elephants.

Our sorrow covered the sanctuary like a heavy cloud. The suddenness of Tina's death filled us with inconsolable sorrow and unanswered questions. Later, a necropsy would show that a heart problem, very possibly a genetic defect, caused her death. But we could not escape knowing that two decades of osteomyelitis had caused her a lifetime of pain.

As we humans busied ourselves with the details of laying Tina to rest, her herd mates held a vigil over her body. Tarra was the first to come in from the habitat to visit Tina. Sissy and Winkie, who had spent the most time with her, stood quietly over their departed friend during the entire night and next day. Visibly distraught, Winkie pushed and prodded Tina as if trying to get her to wake up. As Tina was being buried, Winkie and Tarra stood at the edge of the grave, unwilling to allow the bulldozer to cover Tina's body with dirt.

Their grief was heartbreaking. Tarra kept grabbing my hand and guiding me towards Tina in a gesture that indicated she wanted me to "go get her." All three girls spent the evening and the next day at the grave. Before they left, Sissy gently placed her beloved tire on the top of Tina's grave like a wreath.

Tina embodied love and compassion, and I feel blessed to have known and loved her. Watching her experience the joys of freedom and friendship was a wonder to behold.

I remember the first time that she left the barn and entered the world of trees and vegetation. Using her sore feet like shovels, she gleefully flung mounds of dirt onto her back. She spent hours in the shade of the forest canopy immersed in nature, savouring her new home. Later, in the barn, she emanated tranquillity. As she leisurely munched on fresh-cut bamboo stocks, she appeared to be miles away, almost as if she were in a dream.

Like Tina, Mali - the Manila Zoo's lone elephant - also deserves to know freedom and family. Mali has been in solitary confinement for far too long. Nothing would make Mali happier than spending the last 30-plus years of her life as part of a herd.

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