By Kate Stringer
WINSTON — When elephants meet for the first time, a range of responses can follow: aggression, affection, apathy.
But when Wildlife Safari’s elephant Tava saw two new elephants led from their shipping crates into the Winston park’s barn Monday evening, she let out a trumpet.
That’s because Tava, unlike Wildlife Safari’s other two elephants, George and Moja, recognized the new arrivals. Tava used to live at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, where she worked with elephants Liz and Valerie for more than 10 years.
The story of the three elephants’ separation and reunion began when Tava was sent to Wildlife Safari two years ago after Six Flags decided to slowly phase-out its elephant program.
This year, Six Flags reached out to Wildlife Safari to see if it could send its last elephants, Liz and Valerie, to Winston, too.
Wildlife Safari had exhausted its budget obtaining Moja in October. So Six Flags gave Wildlife Safari the new elephants for free and paid for the shipping costs.
An elephant can sell for $275,000, Wildlife Safari Executive Director Dan Van Slyke said. “For (Six Flags), it was about the reunion,” he said. “You don’t see that a lot in big corporations.”
Nick Way, the elephant supervisor at Six Flags, agreed.
“For us, it was financially not the best decision (to gift the elephants), but it was best for the animals,” Way said. “We could have split them up to sell them, but we wanted to keep them together.”
Way made the seven-hour journey from Vallejo with Liz and Valerie, and he will be staying to help them get used to their new home.
“(The elephants) trust me to come into this new environment,” Way said. “Me being close will help the elephants to trust (Wildlife Safari).”
Now, Wildlife Safari has five elephants, the largest herd it has had for at least 20 years. The public can currently see the elephants in their corrals, but close encounters won’t begin until the elephants are fully adjusted, Elephant Supervisor Katie Alayan said. That adjustment could take a few months.
In celebration of this “jumbo-sized reunion,” as the trainers call it, Wildlife Safari is donating $5,000 to the International Elephant Foundation, which will go toward anti-poaching efforts.
“Ninety-six African elephants are killed every day due to poaching,” Alayan said. “If things don’t change right now, we could see them become extinct in our lifetime. That’s unacceptable.”
Alayan hopes that when people encounter elephants in person, a connection, and perhaps a desire to help conservation efforts, will be formed.
She said she sees people tear-up when they get to touch an elephant for the first time. Van Slyke also remembers the speaking ability of a child with autism improving after visiting the elephants.
“Something about that large creature made a significant change,” Van Slyke said. “I think we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to therapeutic abilities of animals.”
Wildlife Safari consistently donates 10 percent of the money raised from human-animal encounters to conservation efforts. Alayan estimates Wildlife Safari has given more than $15,000 to those efforts.
Part of the reason people form attachments with elephants is because they see similarities between themselves and the animals, Alayan said.
“We tend to over-anthropomorphize elephants,” she said.
For example, there’s a misconception that elephants cry to express sadness, but a connection between their tears and an emotion isn’t proven. Another misconception is thinking that Asian elephants smile when happy, when it’s really just the natural shape of their mouths, Alayan said.
These perceived connections aren’t entirely unfounded, though.
“They have emotions, but they’re expressed differently,” Alayan said.
Elephants make a low rumbling noise, almost like purring, when happy. Being quiet and eating together, like many families, is a sign of contentment, Alayan said.
Behaviors are similar to humans, as well. For example, elephant herds have a dominant matriarch. Older females like Liz assume a motherly role with Tava and Valerie. When Tava saw Liz for the first time in two years, Van Slyke said her excitement was more pronounced than it was to seeing Valerie.
“It was a real sensational moment,” he said. “Tava just trumpets, ‘Mom’s here!’”
The new elephants are currently separated from the original three by a large fence, but staff have observed positive over-the-fence interactions between the groups. This means they may soon be able to interact without barriers.
“George thinks he’s found his long-lost love,” Van Slyke said, as George and Liz have been observed canoodling along the fence line.
The Safari’s herd, though, is older, and there are no current plans for breeding.
“We know this is an exciting part of Winston and Douglas County, and we’re excited for (the community) to experience these two new personalities,” Alayan said. Video.