Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Elephant “assisted therapy”

– the therapist’s new clothes?

News has reached us of a worrying new practice involving animals that is being promoted as psychological treatment for vulnerable humans: "elephant assisted therapy". Occupational therapy and nursing researchers from Chiang Mai University in Thailand have recently begun a project to look into using interactions with captive elephants to aid people with autism , and it appears that at least one game farm in South Africa is promoting the use of captive elephants as a benefit to disabled children .

In common with the questionable yet fashionable practice of dolphin therapy, elephant assisted therapy involves allowing people to have direct contact with captive wild animals. The Born Free Foundation is particularly concerned about this practice, given the high level of risk involved to the human participants and the impact on animal welfare in the use of captive elephants in this way. Often, harsh methods are used to tame and train elephants, particularly in Asia. For an example of the methods used from a facility in Thailand, follow the link to “Training Crush” (NB please be warned that you may find the footage distressing).

The “Elephant Training Expert” on the Chiang Mai University study is associated with the National Elephant Institute, Thailand, and the Forest Industry Association (FIO) . It is the policy of FOI to:

“train elephants at 3-4 years, depending on size and health, by immobilization in a corral, which acclimates the elephant to being chained and shackled”

Elephants used in the therapy programmes may have undergone similar treatment, and may be unwilling participants in the therapy sessions, or suffer detriment to their welfare in order to make them participate.  

Born Free has consulted renowned experts in the fields of animal assisted therapy and autism. Dr. Lori Marino, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University, Atlanta and Dr. Gay Bradshaw, Executive Director and President of the Board of Directors of The Kerulos Center, and Co-Founder of the International Association for Animal Trauma and Recovery  have stated that “Such ventures raise serious concerns for humans and elephants … elephants in captivity have undergone brutal ‘breaking’ comparable to tortures inflicted on human prisoners”. In reference to Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in general, they state that “these practices are questionable both in terms of their efficacy in helping the healing process, and their negative impacts on individual animal welfare and the species at large … many AAT enterprises prioritize financial profit and are indifferent to the animal”.

Read a full statement by Drs. Marino and Bradshaw on elephant therapy [PDF file - 12KB]

International author and autism consultant Donna Williams has commented to Born Free that it "doesn’t take an elephant or a dolphin or a 2nd mortgage to go chase some latest craze... the bigger and more exotic the animal, the more dinner party currency these ‘treatments’ have and the greater the placebo potential… it’s harder for people to say they wasted their money than look for ‘breakthroughs’ they’d otherwise overlook on a daily basis".

Find out more about Donna Williams at her website and read a full interview between Born Free and Donna on the issue of elephant therapy.

Sadly, the numerous incidences of human injuries and deaths from captive elephants each year stand as testament to the unpredictability and risk posed by these large and potentially aggressive animals. The Born Free Foundation is convinced that the purported benefits of practices such as elephant assisted therapy pale into insignificance alongside the risks to people and potential for poor welfare of the elephants involved.


NB Born Free Foundation is not responsible for the content of external sites
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

Share | |