Interaction Therapy – Walking With Elephants
Active addiction mirrors the struggle these elephants go through before joining the Knysna Elephant Park – lack of connection, grief and loss, trauma, behavioural difficulties, rejection and abandonment.
The Knysna Elephant Park (established in 1994) has provided a domesticated facility for wild, orphaned elephants in need of a home for the past twenty years and is both nationally and internationally recognised as one of the best rescued,n captive elephant facilities in the world.
The African Elephant Research Unit (AERU) was established at the Knysna Elephant Park in October 2009. AERU is the first elephant research unit dedicated to optimising the welfare of rescued captive elephants in South Africa.
These elephants were orphaned, rejected or abandoned, each one in a desperate search for their last chance at life. The present Knysna Elephant Park herd consists of nine elephants, led by their gracious matriarch, Sally. Each elephant has a history, a story to tell and wisdom to impart.
*Photography by Petra Meus
These elephants that now call the Knysna Elephant Park ‘home’, have had to adapt to a new environment, accept and be accepted into a new family herd, and develop trust after experiencing rejection and abandonment, some of whom went through unspeakable trauma. The resilience of these animals has always overwhelmed me.
These incredible survivors are proof of hope for new beginnings and the resilience of the soul.
We are so privileged to be working together with this particular establishment who have demonstrated consistent care, respect and consideration for the wellbeing of each elephant above all else. Being an avid animal lover, being a part of the Knysna Elephant Park has restored my faith in rescued-captive wild animal parks. The park insists on responsible and educational interactions which allows the elephants to roam free at all times whilst our patients bask in the presence of these awe-inspiring creatures. The elephants are able to chose what and when they want to eat and always initiate contact on their own terms. Observing the interaction between elephant and handler, it becomes clear that this is truly a family that has each other’s best interests at heart.
Each elephant has endured its own struggle and triumph. Being able to relate to these individual traumas or challenges has been particularly touching for myself as well as every patient. However, what humbles me most is to be a part of their triumph over adversity. This feeling is also exactly what motivates me to work in the field of addiction.
The recovering addicts:
Vincere GGZ established Vincere Huguenot in 2014, an inpatient addiction rehabilitation facility located in the idyllic Knysna forest, South Africa. A large majority of our patients come to our facility feeling like this is their last chance. Some who have been through treatment before and continue to relapse lack hope in the process. “What would make this time different?”, they often ask as they enter treatment.
Our therapy program, much like the elephant interaction therapy, is designed to redevelop secure attachment styles. A process of reconnection with the self and the other. The nature of recovery depends on this essential element in order to be effective. Healing the insecure attachment styles in addition to the coping strategy, addiction, is what makes this time different.
Head of treatment at Vincere GGZ and psychiatrist, Dr. R. Coppens adds “issues such as family support and parental protection which is an integral part of an elephant’s social behaviour assists the particular needs of the recovering addict in order to cope with the reality of his/her daily life.”
The link between us – the lost and found
“Whilst other animal assisted therapies have gained recognition, it is my opinion that the relatability factor between humans and elephants is hard to replicate. Elephants rely on their family herds for survival. Each one plays a vital role within the family structure. What amazes me is the ability for these elephants to choose to trust the very species that has directly been the cause of so much grief and loss in the past. This is a true testament of the care they receive from the Knysna Elephant Park.
Additionally, they recreate a new family herd, one that offers safety, mutual trust and unconditional love. This is simply unheard of in the wild. Without the opportunity for relocation and reintegration into a herd these animals would die.
Active addiction mirrors the struggle these elephants go through before joining the Knysna Elephant Park – lack of connection, grief and loss, trauma, behavioural difficulties, rejection and abandonment. Similarly, the recovering addict needs to connect with a secure and recovery-based support structure, reconnect with family and learn to trust again.
I have had the privilege of witnessing patients connect to particular elephants that have experienced similar trauma in the past. This connection based on empathy and respect is what touches the patient in a way that conventional therapy struggles to achieve. Patients who are considerably resistant, dissociated or defiant have experienced an awakening of vulnerability and humility in relating to the elephant and triggering their own emotions that have been suppressed during active addiction, and for some, a large majority of their lives”.
Developing the relationship
With the assistance and supervision of Dr Debbie Young (head or AERU), Mr. Sias van Rooyen (elephant manager) and Mr. Geoffrey Phiri (head elephant handler) at the Knysna Elephant Park, the elephants and patients meet once a week to explore, touch, feel, relate and most of all, learn to trust each other. Dr. Debbie Young explains, “Interaction doesn’t always have to mean physical contact. Being amongst the herd from a distance also touches the spirit.”
*Photography by Petra Meus
Patients are familiarised with each elephant’s history and educated on factual information about the park and its inhabitants. Weekly topics such as coping and grief and loss that form part of the elephant interaction therapy are presented by Sias and Geoffrey from the elephant’s perspective. Psychologists then reflect on the human and individual perspective of these specific topics with the patients post interaction.
Sias van Rooyen explains, “To be part of so many aspects of this company, rehabilitation, research, our domesticated herd we still learn every day and it is quite an honour to be a part of these elephants and their journeys, some good and some sad.”
“The elephants initiate contact, not the patients. This makes the interaction more powerful and displays trust from the elephants towards the patients.”
According to Dr. Young, “The elephants initiate contact, not the patients. This makes the interaction more powerful and displays trust from the elephants towards the patients.”
During a discussion with Dr. Debbie Young, she recalled her most powerful memory of our elephant interactions together, “The moment the young girl looked into Keisha’s (the elephant’s) eyes and found an instant connection. As if they were relating to each other’s life stories. This level of connection was amazing to see. I have never been so moved before.”
My experience of this soul awakening interaction offers the recovering addict an opportunity to be reached on a level void of his/her defenses. I have not found other modalities of therapy to be this effective at accessing and healing the core self simply through relating and connecting with these resilient and graceful beings.
*Photography by Petra Meus
The power of us:
As we surrender to the power of healing through each other, I continue to grow in awe of these courageous people and elephants who have been so lost and hopeless yet found their redemption and hope in each other, as well as the support and care offered by both the park and Vincere Huguenot.
“While I walk back with the patients and elephants to end off our session, I am comforted by knowing that this time will be different. For both the patients and the elephants. Together”.