Santa Cruz County Stories: Elke Riesterer Massages Humans And Other Animals
Written By Chris Watson
May 24, 2010
Live Oak masseuse and touch therapist Elke Riesterer refers to her clients by their first name. For most of them, it’s nothing special. But for some of her clients — Nunaimala, Elphi, Prithviraj and Gigi — the emphasis on names is a point of honor. Doing so, says Riesterer, underscores the respect they deserve as co-species sharing our planet.
A “citizen of the world” born in Germany, Riesterer believes that elephants, giraffes, tortoises, rhinos, lizards and other sentient beings she tenderly massages at the Oakland Zoo and elsewhere should be engaged as equals. To do otherwise only increases pain and suffering in the world.
A certified massage therapist since 1984, Riesterer earns her living massaging human clients. Many of the techniques she uses were learned while a student at the Twin Lakes College of Healing, including polarity, shiatsu, reflexology, acupressure and Feldenkrais.
But Riesterer also practices the Tellington Touch, a massage therapy she learned in order to relieve the arthritic suffering of her horse Electra.
“By working on the tongues and gums of animals, T-Touch works on the reptilian part of the brain, the limbic system,” Riesterer said recently from her light-filled home beyond the noise and traffic of civilization.
“When you get an animal to relax their mouth, tongue and jaw, you open up and release their energy. It’s about working with the nervous system through touch.”
Knowing how successful T-Touch is with horses, Riesterer decided to try it in her volunteer work with wild animals. Her first wild client was an abused dolphin that would lie on its back and flap its flippers back and forth nervously.
“I touched him over his chest and under his arms for several minutes,” she recalled, “and like a flower, he opened up and became completely still.”
The effect on Delphi the dolphin was so magical, Riesterer knew she’d found a new vocation.
Over the years, she’s become a regular at the Oakland Zoo, traveled to Africa to work at the Elephant and Rhino Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, cared for animals at the San Andreas Sanctuary for Performing Animals, and hopes return to India for work on the second phase of her study of mahouts and their elephants.
In the first phase, Riesterer convinced the mahouts elephant drivers via interviews, videos, data collection and hands-on healing that a tender touch would yield greater compliance and healthier animals. To complete the project, she hopes to synthesize data, publish findings in scientific journals and begin educational workshops in Asia, the U.S., Europe and other places elephants are kept in captivity.
Riesterer is conflicted by her work with zoo animals and her belief that zoos are cruel: “For 12 years, I’ve been going in and out of cages at the Oakland Zoo and the pain I feel at their constricted life has only gotten bigger.”
A big proponent of animal sanctuaries, Riesterer says that animal activists’ first fight must be circuses. Education, she says, is the key.
“I think that younger people have woken up to our cruelty toward domesticated animals and I only hope they can raise children more interested in learning about living animals than dinosaurs.”
Animals she’s touched: Scuddy, a 6-year-old rhino with a leg injury who rested her head in Riesterer’s lap; Garline, a female monitor lizard who adores a rub on the ‘third eye’ area of her forehead; Prithviraj, an 11-year-old traumatized elephant who relaxes when his tongue is massaged; Ralph, an ancient tortoise, who grunts with pleasure when his toenails are massaged.
Tellington Touch: An animal’s heart rate slows to mirror the heart rate of the masseuse.
About zoos: ‘They fall into the entertainment category. The noise pollution is awful.’
On the net
Donate to the Elephant Listening Hands-India Project: kerulos.org; 541-899-1070.
Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee: www.elephants.com
Performing Animal Welfare Society Sanctuary