Why do we need to treat Elephants?

by Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO Zoo Ost Ltd

This was a question I was asked at the end of a talk I had given covering the osteopathic treatment of all kinds of animals and birds. It was the first time I have been asked such a question in more than 25 years of working with all manner of species, including elephants. The originator of this found it hard to understand why we should bother trying to help anything other than another human being, and I wasn’t sure how much compassion they would have in that department either.

It didn’t help when I said treating any creature was much like taking care of your dog, to which the lady replied, “I’d just have it put down!”

I never did find out why she had taken the time to attend an evening that clearly offered nothing that she could understand, or empathise with. I can mention this incident safe in the knowledge that she would never peer inside this publication that, in her mind, merely promotes a waste of time and money.

However, the question did get me asking myself why it is that, over the last 28 years I’ve found myself administering osteopathic treatment to lots of elephants, hundreds in fact, with several hundred others that I’ve merely had to observe and comment on.

I have been privileged to work with captive (as no elephant is really domestic) and wild ones, and many very talented and knowledgeable professionals who have dedicated their lives to caring for, and improving the welfare and conservation of these amazing species. Very many of the individual animals I work with have suffered either physical or psychological trauma, and some have suffered both. That they let a complete stranger make physical contact with them, and then administer therapeutic changes within their physiology is astounding. I am fully aware that they could end my life in the blink of an eye if they wished to, but they don’t (or at least haven’t yet!).

I have spent the last three decades listening to, and acting on expert advice on what I can, and cannot do around each individual elephant. More importantly I have learnt to realise that an elephant can be your best friend one day, and not want you anywhere near them the next. They have complex personalities just as we do, and sometimes want to be left alone, in the same way we do.

Those that know me are aware that I have been running specialist workshops to introduce other manual therapists to my world of elephant osteopathy. Some of you reading this may well have attended one or more of them. They usually take place over a 5 day period.

Occasionally clients, whose own animals I’ve treated, attend, and what strikes me as unusual is that these people very often listen to and adhere to all of the health and safety information that we continually give. What worries me is that by around day four there is always at least one professional delegate that forgets, and puts themself, or others in potential, and on one occasion actual danger. That person won’t be joining any future workshops!

But I digress. Why have I spent so much of my life working with these incredible creatures?

As a child I saw my first elephant when the circus came to town. I was fascinated by their sheer size, intelligence, and ability to behave as individuals. These were different times, and bizarrely I find myself as part of the care team for the last retired circus elephant in the UK, and reportedly the oldest individual in Europe.

When I began my training to become an osteopath I got thinking about other species, and elephants (also Giant Pandas but that’s another story) and what problems individuals might get if they were not able to roam on a daily basis.

I compared the way humans in sedentary lifestyles appeared to suffer certain problems both physically, and emotionally and it got me to thinking and asking the question “do other species with highly developed brains suffer similarly?”

I found out a couple of years after graduating when I came face to face with my first elephant patient at Twycross Zoo. Both she and the zoo’s vet had a good sense of humour. She was still a juvenile, and the vet acted like one (he’s a good friend of mine now so I can say this!).

I knew this encounter would be a steep learning curve, but it was made a whole lot worse by the fact that the regional news station wanted to film me attempting to give this elephant an osteopathic treatment. What I didn’t realise, thankfully, was that it would make the breakfast news throughout the UK.

The elephant in question was presented to me after I’d gone through her case history with the vet, then he asked for the “baby” to be brought into the elephant house. In walked a 7 foot tall baby and she continued walking up to me, then through me, before turning and sticking her trunk between my legs and lifting me about a foot (30cm for the younger readers) off the ground. She was none too gentle either. After picking my pockets, undoing bootlaces and the like I tried to palpate her. This she seemed to like, but it didn’t stop all of her shenanigans.

The vet, clearly enjoying my double discomfort of an uncontrollable patient and a large video camera stuffed in front of my face, decided to wind things up a notch, and asked one of the zookeepers if they could fetch me a step ladder. Being so focused on not trying to let my profession down, I gladly accepted the offer of them when they arrived. Big mistake. I was soon on my back looking up at the elephant house ceiling. The elephant was clearly enjoying all of these extra stimuli, as was the vet. At one point I thought he was going to choke himself laughing!

Eventually I had done all that I could and commented that it would be a lot easier if we could get her to lie down next time. The keepers said they would get her comfortable doing this with them scrubbing and cleaning her in this position. The ordeal over, we arranged to reconvene in two weeks.

In the meantime the news item went out and most of my friends and family thought it was an April Fools joke as that was the morning it was aired!

On my second visit the elephant was much calmer, and actually seemed to begin to accept me into her circle. The keepers commented that they had noticed a change in her behaviour since the first visit and were keen to see what else would happen. Over the next 6 months we worked on a series of trials to see what did and did not work, and from this early experience my knowledge of working with elephants was born.

I should add that I was asked to treat the effects of a traumatic altercation she had been involved in with the zoo’s matriarch elephant, or bully, as she appeared to be. The two younger elephants both ended up needing my help thanks to this other individual.

From that first encounter I have now worked with elephants on several continents, and an awful lot in their own range states.

Elephants feature a lot within many cultures and religions, and they provoke powerful emotions within people.

In parts of Africa they are hunted for the price of their tusks. In Asia they are sometimes persecuted due to what are termed human elephant conflict. This is where there is too much pressure on limited pockets of land, or where elephants get a taste for certain crops. Add to this in some countries elephant calves are still taken from the wild to feed the human tradition and occasionally status of owning elephants. In some Asian countries the elephant in domesticity is classified as a beast of burden with ignorance often playing a part in the way that they are looked after. Not so much the physical aspect but rather in the elephant’s psyche.

I know why I get involved, and stay involved in treating elephants. I truly believe that a world without them will be a very much poorer one. By sustaining and improving the health and wellbeing of “domestic” elephants in range state countries we (I include everyone involved in this colossal task) can ease the pressure on wild populations. By creating more elephant movement corridors linking forests and suitable elephant habitat, we can reduce human elephant conflict, and also create pathways for all other forms of wildlife.

By raising welfare standards for captive elephants we can also encourage, through better access to mainstream education, fewer next generation mahouts (elephant keepers/handlers). With each successive generation there will hopefully be fewer, and fewer wanting to keep elephants. After all they take a lot of looking after, and can easily consume 250kg of food a day as adults. That results in a lot of cleaning up from the other end too.

Getting to the present day that is why I have spent the last 7 years supporting the work of John Roberts and his team at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). With John’s and the team’s support I have been able to not only treat ex street elephants with physical and psychological problems, but also to run workshops aimed at mahouts and camp managers, elephant veterinarians, as well as fellow osteopaths, chiropractors, and physiotherapists. But there is still a long road ahead. A major achievement in Thailand has been the successful micro chipping of all domestically kept elephants, along with an even more robust DNA profiling so that any elephant can be screened to see if it is from domestic or wild stocks.

As I write this I have just finished running the latest workshop, and safely seen all the delegates on their way back to their normal lives!

This group were excellent with a high regard for team safety.

Working with elephants and professional elephant people I have sadly lost friends and colleagues to “incidents,” and I always breathe a sigh of relief when each workshop finishes.

Elephants may be enormous but they suffer from all of the same physical and emotional problems as us, and have been shown to both solve problems and work within a team to achieve their goals (now being proven by top researchers like Josh Plotnik).

That’s why we need to treat them. That’s why I have been treating them for most of my career. The fact that they let me is one of the most humbling experiences one can have. If you don’t believe me why not join me on the next workshop?

Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO is Clinical Director on the MSc Animal Osteopathy programme, run through the McTimoney College of Chiropractic, Oxon. He also lectures nationally and internationally; runs unique wildlife workshops; and is a prolific writer, presenter, and broadcaster. His radio show “The Missing Link” on Corinium Radio is the only one of it’s kind and is rapidly gaining a loyal listenership. For more than 6 years he chaired The Society of Osteopaths in Animal Practice (SOAP), which recently changed its name to the Association of Animal Osteopaths (AAO).

For more information contact Tony at

+44 7831 759339

Tony Nevin