Special Touch (1999)

Special Touch: Local Masseuse Has A Passion For Pachyderms
Written By Peggy Townsend, Sentinel Staff Writer
November 28, 1999

Twice a month, Elke Riesterer climbs in her silver Honda and drives 80 miles to the Oakland Zoo to massage elephants.

She doesn’t do it for fame, or money, or any of the other reasons people usually do things. Riesterer massages elephants simply because she believes these hulking 8,000-pound animals at the zoo are wounded souls.

“I feel like these animals went through a lot in their lives,” says Riesterer, explaining how whole families of African elephants are killed and how their orphans are shipped to zoos around the world; how they still grieve for their mothers.

“I want to give something healing to them,” Riesterer says.

So, early on a Thursday morning, the 50-year-old Santa Cruz resident steers her car up a half-hidden road, past busloads of fidgety kids waiting for the zoo to open, and heads for the elephant barn.

She’s a tall woman with curling blonde hair, elephant earrings and a voice that carries the reminder of her German roots. She doesn’t seem to notice the shoe-sucking mud that splashes on the cuff of her pants, or the sour smell of elephant droppings that’s in the air.

“Hello Lisa,” she says, sidling up to a gray-brown, 21-year-old elephant waiting in a giant metal restraining pen.

The elephant cocks a huge brown eye at Riesterer as her long slender fingers dance across the elephant’s hubcap-sized foot, over her giant flapping ear and down the strange brushy tail that measures four feet from tip to end.

The elephant makes a low, honking growl as Riesterer works, the kind of sound those plastic horns make at football games.

“It’s her contentment sound,” explains zoo curator Colleen Kinzley. “She makes the same sound when she eats.”

Kinzley’s not sure massaging these monsters, these animals that can eat up to 1,000 pounds of food in a single day and tear a tree out by its roots, is the answer to happier pachyderms, but she sees benefits nonetheless.

“It’s good for the elephants to experience this, for someone, a stranger, to come and touch them in a gentle, non-threatening way,” says Kinzley.

It gives the animals something to do and makes them less nervous when vets have to come to draw blood. Sometimes, she says, they do seem calmer.

Riesterer steps back and waits as Lisa and reaches out with a trunk that has more than 40,000 muscles in it, a trunk that’s more like an arm than a nose. Lisa blows a stream of water out of her trunk; grabs a green pepper from a trainer’s hand.

When she settles back down, Riesterer reaches in to massage again and Lisa’s eyelids sink to half mast until the crackle of a trainer’s radio snaps them open again.

“I feel strongly I have to do this,” Riesterer says. “I experience a lot a pain in my heart about what has been done to the animal kingdom.”

She thinks the animals appreciate this one small act of compensation.

Riesterer usually massages humans, but when her horse, a thoroughbred-quarterhorse mix named Electra, began developing arthritis, she wondered if massage would work on her, too.

She learned an animal massage method called Tellington Touch and began using it on her horse. She noticed Electra seemed to move easier and didn’t need to go to the vet as often.

In 1996, she went to Africa, where she volunteered at a wild animal orphanage, massaging baby elephants and an injured black rhino named Scuddy.

She started working at the Oakland Zoo more than two years ago.

“Animals are like people in the way that we all have some situation in which we didn’t get respect or got hurt or beaten,” Riesterer says later, sitting in the airy Live Oak home she shares with her husband, Rusty Brown, who runs a fruit-dehydrating company.

These painful memories remain in the cells of our bodies, Riesterer explains. So the trauma and fear of elephants being yanked out of their family units are still alive. The kind of massage she practices is a way to release the fear and tension, she says.

She sips from a cup of herbal tea laced with soy milk.

“I give them something that is kind and loving and not going to hurt,” she says.

Elephants are intelligent animals, says curator Kinzley. “Their ability to solve problems is the same as the great apes.”

Lisa, a mischievous elephant, likes to sling mud at people and, like a kid, will keep doing it as long as she gets a squeal, or a curse. Donna, a 20-year-old female, is the first to put her foot through a hole in the pen so it can be washed and rubbed.

Elephants communicate with a low rumble that can’t be heard by human ears, according to information compiled by the North Carolina Zoological Park.

This “silent” language might be the reason elephants seem so wise. They will turn and bolt before trouble appears, or move as if hooked on an invisible thread. In times of danger, family groups will mass and form clans of 200 or more elephants.

But even their intelligence can’t save the elephants from what’s happening in Africa now, according to Kinzley. As towns encroach on elephants’ ranges, there are clashes between animals and humans. Elephants have been known to destroy a village’s entire food supply in a single night; humans retaliate by killing the adult elephants, then selling off the orphans to zoos around the world.

Two of the elephants came to Oakland this way, although they were purchased only after they had been at other zoos.

There are 500,000 elephants in the world now.

There used to be 2 million, Kinzley says.

Donna, an 8,300-pound giant of an animal, folds her ear out of the pen for Riesterer to massage.

Riesterer pushes up her sleeves and goes to work, her fingers moving over the smooth gray skin. Sometimes, she says, she feels Donna lean into the massage. Sometimes she seems to almost disappear into a trance.

Riesterer has leafleted circuses for they way they treat elephants and she has worked to develop retirement homes for animals used in entertainment.

But elephant massage is something she does quietly, a mostly unnoticed part of her fight to help animals.

“It’s a spiritual connection,” says Riesterer of the massage, a connection of her heart to the animal’s.

“I feel a merging, a coming-together,” she says. “Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.”

It’s something, she believes, she – and the elephants – will never forget.