Animal Spirit (2001)

Animal Spirit – Massage Therapist Connects with Exotic Creatures Through Touch
By Kelle Walsh, Senior Associate Editor
Massage Magazine – Pages 48, 50, 52, 55, 56
March/April 2001

elkeElke Riesterer carries the spirit of savanna. Tall, graceful and tanned, she moves with deliberation and ease, like the big cats whose markings are mimicked on her T-shirt. Her other adornments, an elephant charm bracelet that clinks as she gestures with strong hands, and an enormous silver ring depicting a mighty elephant – its ears spread wide and trunk down – reveal that this 40-something massage therapist’s heart belongs to the great beasts that roam lands far from her Santa Cruz, California, home.

Even more revealing than her countenance is the reverence with which she speaks of creatures most of us will only see on the Discovery Channel. When asked what it was like the first time she put her hands on a large exotic animal, Elke’s gaze becomes misty. “It was awesome,” she sighs.

It was just five years ago that Elke first visited the continent that would profoundly influence her work as a massage therapist and healer of animals. “Africa totally captured my whole being,” she recalls.

“I strongly believe that we get something from these animals. I like to give something back to them.” – Elke Riesterer

A five-week safari led her to an animal orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. There she encountered Scuddy, a 6-year-old female black Rhino named after the Scud missiles used during the Gulf war, that had been raised and then released from the orphanage. Scuddy had wandered back a few weeks before, suffering from a leg injury.

Elke, who was trained in massage and Tellington Touch (TTouch), a gentle, circular massage stroke used primarily on domestic animals, thought she might be able to help. With the permission of the shelter owner, she began using TTouch on the rhino. Slowly working her way to Scuddy’s injured knee, she noticed her breath begin to slow as she relaxed.

elke-2Two days later, Elke returned to the orphanage to find the rhino’s condition much improved, which she attributed to the TTouch strokes she had taught to the animal keepers. This time when she went to work, Elke found Scuddy even more approachable. “She was so receptive, she just lifted up her head and looked at me. And I put my hands out and she just put her face right into my hands with a big sigh. It almost made me cry because it was just so incredible. It was just such a wonderful, wonderful response. I really made contact with her,” she recalls.

On that first trip Elke glimpsed a future that called upon using her healing talents on animals. She has since made two more trips to wildlife parks in Africa, where she was able to do some massage on the animals. And her interest in the conservation of endangered species and fighting for the removal of large, exotic animals from circuses has grown. It was at a conference about protecting these animals that Elke’s life took another turn. Upon hearing of her work in Africa, Colleen Kinzley, curator of the Oakland Zoo, in Oakland, California, invited her to do TTouch on the zoo’s four elephants. It was a dream come true.

Elke’s enthusiasm for elephants, carriers of “ancient wisdom,” she says, is apparent. “They symbolize power and wisdom. And they have this incredible communications system and family structure – they are just very intelligent,” she says. “I just have this incredible, deep fascination with them, and this heart connection.” Three years later, she still makes the monthly 90-minute trip from her home in Santa Cruz to work on Domla, MDunda, Smokey and Lisa, and sometimes the zoos giraffes or other animals in need of touch.

“What I want to do with my TTouch is for the animals to gain more self-confidence, that [they think} they are OK and that there is nothing to fear. ” – Elke Riesterer

All God’s Creatures

Elke Riesterer didn’t plan to be a massage therapist to animals. A native of Freiburg, Germany, she had worked as a hygienist for orthodontists before moving to California in 1983. But she had long been interested In complementary healing, having suffered from childhood scoliosis; and took courses in shiatsu and did massage on friends.

Soon after she arrived stateside she received a certificate in massage from Santa Cruz’s Twin Lakes College of Healing Arts, and opened a massage practice out of her home – for humans. She still practices, combining Swedish massage, shiatsu, polarity, reflexology, craniosacral therapy, Zero Balancing, Reiki, the Feldenkrais Method, and even TTouch into a system she calls “body art.” But her love of animals naturally led her to explore touch on non-humans.

It began with her late horse, Electra, who was the first beneficiary of her study of TTouch in the late ’80s. Friends and neighbors soon began to ask her to work on their cats, dogs and horses.

“Animals respond so much to touch,” Elke says. “There is nothing in between, like with people. People’s thinking comes so much into it. With animals, it’s in the body. It feels good and they let you in.” Her work with animals feels like a service of gratitude to the creatures that have been a source of inspiration in her life, she says.

“I strongly believe that we get something from these animals,” she says. “I like to give something back to them. And give something back that is comforting and that can make them feel good besides just feeding them goodies and special treats. I really believe that touch is a universal healing tool and it is received by whatever being you touch.”

Beyond bars

Doing touch on animals, especially large ones, is not without its challenges. At the zoo, Elke has to climb a ladder to reach a platform from which she works on the heads and necks of the giraffes. The elephants are held in restraining chutes with bars that she reaches through to do the TTouch sequences. There is a constant risk of injury from these enormous creatures: a kick from a long-legged giraffe; getting her hands trapped in the bars of the elephant chute; or a swipe of a trunk that could send her flying.

“The challenge would be to make sure you’re not stepped on, that you don’t get hurt,” she says. “You always watch that you take care of your body.” But perhaps the biggest challenge, Elke says, is getting the animals to trust her in the first place. Animals, like humans, hold pain and emotion in their bodies, especially when they have been traumatized, she says. For large animals living in captivity, many which have suffered severe injury or abuse before being transferred to the safekeeping of a zoo, just letting humans near them is often a big step.

“What I want to do with my TTouch is for the animals to gain more self-confidence, that [they think] they are OK and that there is nothing to fear,” she says. “So that’s what’s the strength of TTouch: It’s building trust between humans and animals.” Once that trust is established, amazing connections and healing can take place, Elke says.

On the elephants, for example, she will begin a TTouch sequence on the foot, working up the leg to the knee. She then moves to the tail, and then to the back and ears. Sometimes the elephants will lean into her hands where they want more pressure. “If everything is just right, they drop their heads, their eyes start closing, their breathing slows down . . . everything is slowing down, and you can suddenly hear a deep breath,” she says.

One of the zoos elephants, Donna, a 23-year-old African female, contracted Salmonella two years ago. Over the course of a few months she lost almost 1,000 pounds off her 9,000-pound frame. The prognosis was grim. Elke spent day after day doing reflexology and massage strokes on her body and TTouch on her ears. “She was really asking me to do it,” she says. “There were times when she positioned her body where she wanted me to touch her.”

“It was very clear that when Elke started doing TTouch work on Donna she would relax and get more comfortable,” says Kinzley, who noted that after Elke did TTouch in the elephant’s mouth, she would finally eat a little.

“Just to have her relax and be comforted by someone, I think, was a big relief to her,” Kinzley says. Donna survived and continues to receive TTouch.

Elke says that she’d like to see touch or massage programs installed at all zoos, and any place large animals are kept. And her goal is to move to Africa someday to do this work on animals in game parks and animal orphanages.

“I feel I have something to do, I have something to give the world. I really want to improve [the animals’] lives,” Elke says. “It’s so strong I have to follow that. I have something with my hands, I have to give that.”