Listening Hands (2013)

Listening Hands
Written by Beatrice Wiltshire / Boland Independent News, South Africa

Bolander had the singular privilege of meeting up with animal therapist Elke Riesterer during her short visit to the Boland. A sense of calm is the first impression one gets. The second impression of this tall, sun-tanned girl is her beautiful hands which she uses a lot when she talks. Born in Freiburg, Germany, where she initially trained as a dental hygienist and technician, Elke became a certified massage therapist after emigrating to the USA in 1983. She then expanded to other hands-on modalities ranging from Acupressure through to Reflexology, Craniosacral therapy and Feldenkrais.

Says Elke: “All my life I’ve had a natural inclination to touch people. When I was in my teens, massage therapy eased the symptoms of a painful scoliosis in my spine. A desire arose to bring similar benefits to other people and so the seed was planted for my current profession in the healing arts.”

From the age of 14 she had felt drawn to work with animals especially horses. Being the guardian of a horse for 10 years gave her a wonderful opportunity to explore the human-animal connection. But it was only after moving to the States that she became a practitioner of Tellington TTouch, a hands-on therapy and specialized approach to the care and training of companion – as well as exotic animals.

Elke gave workshops in this modality which teaches one to refine one’s intuitive understanding of an animal’s sensitive nature and helps establish a deeper rapport between humans and their animals. The biggest challenge, Elke says, is getting the animals to trust you in the first place. Animals, like humans, hold pain and emotions in their bodies, especially when they have been traumatised.

For large animals living in captivity, many of whom 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, as Elke found during her bi-monthly voluntary sessions with the elephants at Oakland zoo. The key to success is the building of trust, however long it takes. And that’s what TTouch is about – building trust and releasing pain and fear with small, circular massage movements. Once trust is established, amazing connections and healing can take place.

But working with captive animals comes at a price. It adds to Elke’s own pain. That’s where animal activists should start,” she says, “getting wild animals out of zoos and circuses.” Elke admits that her favourite animal is indeed the elephant, “a master of tactile sensitivity” and so she regularly travels to Kenya to the Wildlife orphanage of Daphne Sheldrick.

A recognised international authority on the rearing of wild creatures Sheldrick, who has tirelessly campaigned at an international level against the abuse of captive animals, is also the first person to have perfected the milk formula and necessary husbandry for infant milk dependent elephants and rhinos. At the orphanage they are raised and eventually fully reintegrated back into the wild. It is here that Elke works with traumatised elephants and rhinos.

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, the back and ears. Initially they are fearful of letting their guard down and then gradually they let go with a general slowing down. Sometimes the animals will lean into her hands, where they want more pressure. Instinctively they know that it is a kind, mindful and conscious touch. It is this “asking,” coupled with “human listening,” that is the building block of friendship and greater understanding of species without a common language, says Elke.

She showed me excerpts from her daily diary, which will be later be turned into a book: “Maxwell the rhino strolled directly towards me, pushing his enormous horn through the space between the bars. I touched his soft cheeks first, making tiny circles and he stayed very still with eye lids gradually closing. He liked his lips played with, his small tongue invited me for a stroke. I remembered the banana in my bag. Bananas are wonderful treats for elephants and rhinos.

Feeding him bits and pieces of the fruit was so much fun. He opened his mouth wider and wider with great enjoyment. It is heart-warming to witness the pleasure of all these creatures. Maxwell presented his body to me over and over again, walking away for a bit then coming back for more. Occasionally a deep breath flowing out through the big nostrils of his would let me know that he experienced a release of tension. A lot like my human clients do on the massage table.”

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that the elephant was “The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind,” but it is only in recent years that researchers have come to acknowledge the intelligence of many animal species – with the elephant rated as among the most intelligent. They exhibit a wide variety of human-like behaviours, including those associated with grief, learning, altruism, compassion, memory, cooperation and self-awareness, among others.

They are able to use tools. Elephants have a very large and highly convoluted hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that is much bigger than that of any human or primate. It is linked to emotion through the processing of certain types of memory, especially spatial. This is thought to be possibly why elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers such as Cynthia Moss author of Elephant Memories have described various instances of altruism towards humans and other species. They have strong family ties and engage in death rituals, burying their dead – even dead humans, by covering the bodies with leaves and twigs. Gareth Patterson, in his book The Secret Elephants, describes how the African elephant engages in self medication, knowing just which herbs to seek out when ill. This has also been noted with the Asian elephant.

All these human-like attributes, intelligence and strong family ties, coupled with obvious self-awareness and the ability to use tools have some researchers arguing that it is morally wrong for humans to cull them and led a South African Animal Rights group to ask in a statement anticipating the announcement of elephant culling: “How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?”

And this is a sentiment which is now being shared by a growing number of people – people like Elke Riesterer.