My son, the elephant: Fostering an elephant at an orphanage in Africa

Guest post by Erin KLG
elephant orphanage

I was never into Disney as a little girl. I was really more of a Danger Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and Bugs Bunny kid. However, there was one Disney character that touched me so deeply, ruined me so wholly, that the effects are still in place today. I refer to Dumbo, the big-eared elephant.

Dumbo was beyond cute. Dumbo’s story crushed my heart. I mean: guh. It was only much, much later that I was able to see the racism and sexism in the movie, to see it as flawed. But by then, the movie had instilled in me a deep sensitivity toward the world of elephants.

I love all animals.

…However, forgive me for playing favorites, but there are several things that make elephants exceptional. Namely:

  • They live in strong matriarchal family units
  • They are highly intelligent and social animals
  • They mourn their dead, even years after
  • They have excellent memories
  • They use their trunks to “hug” one another
  • Baby elephants are the cutest baby animals on the planet (NO CONTEST)

As an adult, I began to research the plight of elephants in captivity — in particular, those in circuses. I watched undercover videos of circus elephant training. (WARNING: these videos are difficult to watch.) I read about the history of circuses and their current conditions. I vowed never to visit another animal circus or take the children in my life to one of them.

Overwhelmed by the callousness and cruelty, and feeling powerless, I also researched ways I could help. To my surprise and delight, I learned about an “elephant rehabilitation” facility in Tennessee that takes in retired circus elephants and gives them a peaceful environment in which to live. The Elephant Sanctuary provides over 2,000 acres of land on which the elephants can roam. There are quite a few heartwarming stories of particular elephants that they’ve helped, but maybe one of the most amazing is the story of two circus elephant friends reunited after 20 years (you can watch it here: Part I and Part II.) One day, I hope to visit The Elephant Sanctuary and help beyond my measly donations.

Outside of the United States, elephants in Africa are killed for their ivory tusks. Poachers have claimed the lives of thousands of elephants since the 1970s, and it continues today. Poaching leaves many elephant orphans, in turn creating more death, as orphaned elephants rarely survive into adulthood without the help of their families.

This is how I came to foster a baby elephant.

In 2009, my husband and I took the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and Kenya. Before we left for the trip, I researched elephant orphanages in the hope of being able to visit one and help in some way.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of the best animal orphanages in the world, helping not only elephants, but orphaned rhinos and other animals as well. For a $50 donation, you can foster an orphan and receive updates on their care, photos, and other warm fuzzies from across the ocean. If you foster an elephant or rhino and happen to find yourself in Kenya, they have a special program where foster “parents” can visit the elephant orphanage after hours and see the babies coming in for the day from the field, being fed, and readying themselves for sleep in their pens. I considered this not only the trip of a lifetime but an experience I had to have before I died.

I scanned the list of available orphans, and — of course — wanted to foster them all. I couldn’t afford it. So I settled on the baby that seemed to need the most help. His name was Isiolo, after the area where they found him.

Isiolo had fallen into an erosion gully — dehydrated, hungry, and scared. His herd might have been killed or decimated by poachers, and the remaining adult elephants, if any, likely could not rescue him once he fell in the gully, so they left him. (I’m not judging, but… damn). Samburu tribesmen found him and he was transferred to the good folks at the Sanctuary.

I wasn’t Isiolo’s only foster parent; anyone who happened to choose him when donating became his “foster parent.” But fostering him made me feel better about contributing to a solution even a world away. And I couldn’t wait to meet him.

The elephant orphanage emailed a few days before we left to let me know that Isiolo was sick, and somewhat mysteriously so. I hoped that it was nothing beyond dehydration from being in a ditch for so long, that the care and attention he was receiving would cure him. Quickly. However, the orphanage warned me that he might not be as energetic as the other orphans. I understood, and it didn’t matter to me.

The day of our elephant orphanage visit was bright and hot.

Our trusty driver and guide, Hassan, knew the elephant orphanage well and had even already met Isiolo on a previous visit. He said Isiolo was strong, would pull through. We arrived at 5pm, just before the elephants and rhinos come in from the field with their dedicated, trained caretakers.

He was the first back from the field. He pranced in, ears flapping, somewhat slower than the rest, but still young and curious. Isiolo became shy when he saw us. He slowed down, reaching his trunk out to smell, feel. I followed him back to his pen, leaned over the gate with my arm down, hoping he would come to me. After he got his nightly milk bottle, he tried to suckle a gray blanket in his pen — hung there to resemble a mama elephant. He moved on from that, feeling his way around his pen, touching the walls, the floor. To me, finally. He felt my arm with his trunk, paused, looking up at me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the moment tingled. I smiled down at him and whispered “hello.” Then, he lay down to sleep.


I consider meeting Isiolo the highlight of our trip — more than the horseback ride at sunrise to the pyramids, more than the visit to the Masai village, more than the pink flamingos of Lake Nakuru.

Going home to regular life was difficult. I considered changing jobs to become a large animal veterinarian, moving to Tennessee to see if I could get a job at The Elephant Sanctuary, signing up for an elephant rescue volunteering program in Sri Lanka. Africa had changed me. But like all trips, over time, it faded and I returned to a regular routine, remembering what it was that I liked about my own life.

I would get updates from the elephant orphanage regarding Isiolo….

He was still sick but getting by. I had hope.

Then, a few months after we returned, I received a message. He had died in his sleep.

A later autopsy revealed that he had a diseased liver that was twice its normal size and blue rather than red, enlarged lymph nodes indicating a chronic infection, and an Achilles tendon ripped from his right tarsal joint, which, according to the vet, would never have healed. Isiolo, in his short five months of life, had suffered the loss of his family and was in constant pain.

It was like I had met the real-life Dumbo. I was able to let him know, briefly, he was loved. In turn, he had let me.

At work, I have a coffee mug with the silhouette of an elephant on it. You might not think so, but I get asked about it a lot. “Why elephants?”

It’s too much to tell. What should I say about Isiolo and his suffering? Or the elephants in circuses who are prodded, kicked, tortured? Or the baby elephants in the orphanage who suckle gray blankets instead of their mothers, killed for their ivory? What can I say that will make this person my partner in helping to fight for them?

I just like them, I say. They’re interesting creatures. Then I smile.

But if you want to help elephants, please consider:

Comments on My son, the elephant: Fostering an elephant at an orphanage in Africa

  1. There was a fabulous documentary on CBC about the lives of orphaned elephants after being rescued. It was beautiful and it really showed how difficult it can be for them.

    Thank you so much for your story 🙂 I would love to foster an elephant and hopefully I can do so soon!

  2. How wonderful! I didn’t even know something like this existed, fostering elephants. This would be the PERFECT birthday gift for my mommy, who, like you, was inspired by Dumbo to be completely infatuated with the plight of elephants. I’m serious, she’s obsessed and I know something like this would make her whole year.

    I do have a question, though. The website seems to be pretty out of date. Do you have any experience with them after 2009, which seems to be the latest date I can find on the website?

  3. When i was young, we lived in Sri Lanka for 18 months, and during that time i developed a similar love of elephants. It was so amazing to see them all around in aspects of our normal life – driving by on trucks, lifting wood in parks, decroated as part of festivals. We also visited the orphanages a couple of times and i have such amazing memories of the baby elephants. On every trip we make to an Asian country, i always make sure there is an elephant siting planned!
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and for raising awareness of the mistreatment of these amazxing creatures.

  4. What a lovely story…brought tears to my eyes. Elephants are such beautiful animals. I’ve always loved them too. The only time I’ve seen them in person is in a zoo…which in turn makes me so sad to see them in such a small environment.

  5. i love love love love this post! in spring 2014 my soon to be husband & i are traveling to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary (elephant nature park) and i am so looking fwd to it.
    i went to high school in bangkok and as a teenager i used to see elephants in the streets all the time, with monks, it was a very common sight. when we lived in ethiopia we did not see elephants but ivory items were prominent, unfortunately.

  6. All I can say is thank you for sharing. I was holding my breath, trying not to tear up at work. I do love elephants as I love all animals, I just wish I could be in a better place financially to help. :/ Someday!

  7. When I was newly engaged to my now husband, his parents wanted to buy us an engagement present and suggested perhaps some art. I decided this was the perfect oppertunity to see how willing they might be in accepting me with all my quirks and eccentricities. We asked them to get us a piece of art from the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. I had been wanting something from there for some time but my retail wages didn’t allow me the luxury. To my elation they happily agreed and my elephant art has hung with pride and honour since. The unexpected side effect is that every subsequent birthday, anniversary and event has brought with it some form of elephant themed present, a scarf, a tote bag, you get the idea. I don’t have it in me to explain to them that my passion for elephants isn’t quite in the same vein as that of a crazy cat lady, and I am more than grateful for the gift they gave us that sparked the craze 😉 Later, group of my co-workers “adopted” an elephant from our local zoo for us as a wedding present, and although those elephants will now be moving on to a sanctuary, it was bar none the best and most thoughtful wedding present we recieved. It certainly was not the most expensive, but it really pointed out who really knew us best.

  8. I donated and fostered a baby elephant because of this article – I really hope I can visit her some day! Your story brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for sharing it!

Join the Conversation