The Elephant Whisperer (2004)

Elke, The Elephant Whisperer
Written By Myrtle Ryan, Sunday Tribune News / South Africa
May 23, 2004

When Elke Riesterer lays her soothing hands on their bodies, her subjects respond with contented rumbles, swaying motions and a glazed look in the eye.

It might sound like a scene from a massage parlor, or a bout with a physiotherapist, but a too forceful probe of a sensitive spot could leave Riesterer squashed…her patients are elephants.

The technique she uses is Tellington Touch, something more readily associated with dogs and horses, but her healing hands have also helped rhinos, zebras, giraffes, snakes, monkeys, dolphins, cows and giant tortoises.

Born in Germany, for the past six years she’s been attached to the Oakland Zoo in California, where she’s been given the task of enhancing the lives of the elephants, but has also worked with these gentle giants in Thailand and India.

She has paid several visits to Africa, including South Africa (though she has not worked with elephants in our country).

“It was Scuddy, a 6-year-old black rhino at the Daphne Sheldricks orphanage in Kenya, who in 1996 first led me on the path of healing the wild creatures of the world,” said Riesterer, who prior to that had worked mainly with horses.

Earlier this year, she spent time at the elephant conservation centre near Lampang in northern Thailand. She was also invited, through the Wildlife Trust of India, to do a stress evaluation of captive elephants in that country.

“It’s pioneer work that I do with elephants, but I feel strongly that it has made a difference,” she said.

The animals in India were far too tense, mainly because of the conditions in which they are kept.

“Chained to a spot with little access to water and food, along with long working hours, they don’t seem to be very happy.”

Riesterer’s technique can last between 15 minutes and an hour. She begins with the elephant’s feet, which are often a problem spot for large roaming animals forced to lead a sedentary life.

She works up each leg and progresses to the elephant’s ears, then massages the face and tail.

Sometimes she strokes their bodies with a broom, to help calm the nervous system, paying careful attention to the animal’s response.

Metal bar

Being 1.78m tall helps, but she often has to go on tiptoe to reach her subjects. At Oakland Zoo, where she works in a protected contact setting, she stands on a metal bar about 30 cm above the ground.

Speaking about differing reactions from her charges, Riesterer mentioned Krungsee, in Thailand, who had an old injury from stepping on a landmine.

Riesterer said when she moved her hand to Krungsee’s belly she would lift her left rear leg forward, “telling me to go away from that area . . . she did not feel safe with the touch.”

“When an elephant responds to my work, it starts leaning into my hand, closes its eyes or gazes into the distance, and seems to be in a trance-like state.”

It takes a deep breath, makes soft sounds, shows a desire to touch her in return, and often has a bowel movement.

Because these big animals need to move for about 18 hours a day, inactivity often leads to lack of flexibility of the joints.

Working with orphaned, often traumatised, baby elephants has a special place in Riesterer’s heart. She said they nuzzle and push her, lean on her, blow at her, eat her hair and suck on her fingers. They even try to climb into her lap.

“I put emphasis on working their ears to stimulate the immune system, as well as attending to the area of the tail, where in body psychology the emotion of fear is prevalent.”

At Oakland Zoo, she also works with four giant Aldabra tortoises, more than 100 years old. She said these ancients just love to be touched, go up on their toes and stretch every centimetre of their bodies out of their shells in order to savour the sensation to the full.

Shaggy Scottish Highland cattle at the zoo also enjoy the Tellington treatment. Riesterer says within minutes of her laying her hands on them, they are so relaxed, they lie down lazily.

In Thailand, she was often enraged at how aggressively the mahouts treated their charges, shouting orders at them, bullying them, beating them. “I am amazed that the elephants put up with this rough behaviour.”

There’s a camaraderie between the huge mammals. One day, Riesterer visited the animal hospital.

“There Krungsee was having her feet soaked in a blue solution.

“But she was gently, very, very tenderly and sweetly touching a newly arrived, sore and stiff elephant; Pitak, with her trunk.

“We can learn so much from such a touching display.”