The great escape: Flemish couple head south to set up elephant retirement home

The Land Rover bumps and rattles along the narrow dirt road that runs through the rolling hills of tall grass, clusters of trees and pastures dotted with sheep. The morning sun is already high in the sky, but Bussière-Galant, the small village in western France that will soon be home to Europe’s first elephant sanctuary, is giving off a sleepy vibe.

Soon, the road straightens up and the pine trees give way to pear orchards. Tony Verhulst steers the car down an even narrower path leading to a cluster of farm buildings surrounded by a field with an unfinished fence.

As we climb out onto the driveway, we’re greeted by Verhulst’s partner, Sofie Goetghebeur, who has just got off the phone to a newspaper in Paris.

“Welcome to Elephant Haven,” she says, putting the phone on the table. “We get a lot of calls from journalists asking if they can see the elephants, but once they find out we don’t have any animals yet, it’s not that easy to convince them to come here.”

For now, the couple from Antwerp are busy organising fundraisers and fencing off the pastures. The only elephants in the sanctuary are clay statues donated by volunteers and supporters.

One peers from behind the shrubs, another perches on the edge of a small pond. The biggest, made of recycled plastic, was given to them by a retired American actor who lives in the area and was used to promote the project at the regional airport.

The first actual elephant is expected to arrive early next year. When the construction is complete, Elephant Haven will be home to 10 African and Asian elephants, who will be free to roam on 29 hectares of grass, interspersed with walnut and pine trees.

The elephants will be retired circus animals that can’t be returned to the wild. Most will be in their 50s and 60s; some will have ailments quite familiar to us, including arthritis and poor eyesight.

Sofi e Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst spent years working at Antwerp Zoo before taking the decision to launch Elephant Haven in France

Verhulst and Goetghebeur used to work as animal caretakers at Antwerp Zoo, and the idea of opening such a place had been germinating in their minds for many years. “I’m just crazy about animals,” says Goetghebeur, who worked with great apes and okapi. “They have character. They play with their friends, and they can be very sneaky. People can learn so much from them.”

Verhulst, who started off as the zoo’s gardener in 1993, eventually became the elephants’ main caretaker. “I would observe them every day, realising how complex and intelligent they are,” he says. “How much they care for each other and what they value in life. I have no doubt that on a certain level, they are more intelligent than us.”

Elephants, like big cats and great apes, were once common in European circuses. Over the past decade, however, more and more countries have begun banning wild animals from shows. “Belgium three years ago, the Netherlands last year and, just yesterday, Scotland,” says Verhulst. “But there are more than 100 circus elephants in Europe. They will have nowhere to go.”

The couple left their jobs at Antwerp Zoo last year and moved to France to focus on the project full-time. For now, they live off their savings and put whatever donations they receive into the sanctuary. “Every euro counts,” says Goetghebeur. “Some people donate a few euros a month, and, while it may not seem like a lot, it really helps.”

Helping hands are always welcome, the couple say, whether it’s to erect the fence or pick fruit from the orchard. But volunteers better be accustomed to rudimentary conditions. “For now, we have a pit latrine and an improvised shower tent,” says Goetghebeur.

The biggest problem, she adds, is convincing people that they’re serious. “At first the local people didn’t believe us and thought it was a joke. But you just have to show them that your heart is in it, and they will grow to trust you. Then again, I can imagine that it’s not an everyday sight, having an elephant in your back garden.”

Just then, the phone rings again. “It’s the newspaper, they’re asking if we have any photos,” says Goetghebeur. “Maybe we can send them the one of you with Jarunee?”

In 2011, Verhulst and Goetghebeur spent three months volunteering at a sanctuary in Thailand, where Verhulst took care of Jarunee, a blind elephant with a broken hip. Despite her poor health, he trained her to stay still while he drew her blood for medical check-ups. Over time, they developed a close relationship.

“We tried everything to help her,” Verhulst says,” but you could really see the light disappearing from her eyes. Elephants know when the end is near. They fight it, but eventually they come to accept it. I’ve never witnessed an elephant death before. I know it won’t be easy for us here.”

The couple moved to Bussière-Galant three months ago. “We’ve looked everywhere, including in Belgium,” says Verhulst. “But the land there is expensive. This is perfect – the climate isn’t too dry, there are edible trees everywhere, and we have plenty of hay and water. And the previous owner used to have horses, so we can use some of the infrastructure.”

Elephant Haven will practise protected contact, meaning Verhulst and Goetghebeur will always be separated from the animals by a barrier of some sort. “It’s the safest way to take care of them,” Verhulst explains. “We’ll do health checks every day, but only if they’re comfortable with it. And there will be no time schedules. If they want to spend the night outside, they’ll be free to do so. It’s important to give them as much space as they need.”

As we climb to the top of the hill overlooking the sanctuary, Verhulst pauses in solemn silence. “You could almost lose an elephant here,” he says. “They will hide or sleep in the shade, and you’ll have to look really hard for them. Maybe, just maybe, it will remind them of the time before they were taken into captivity. That would be nice.”

But he’s quick to point to out that Elephant Haven is not a crusade against zoos and circuses. “We’re not here to attack or criticise any of them. We just want to help the elephants,” he says.

“The truth is, it’s never black or white. I don’t like it when people forbid something without offering a proper solution. They say no more animals in circuses, but they don’t tell you where those animals should go.”

Despite their unwavering optimism, the couple admit to having underestimated how much time it would take. “I remember you said two years tops,” Verhulst says to his partner. “And yet here we are, five years later.”

“It’s hard because we’re in a new country, where everything’s different,” Goetghebeur adds. “But people have told us time and time again that it’s amazing how quickly an elephant who’s been held in captivity for most of their life returns to their natural self. So even if we’re close to giving up, we just pick ourselves up and say, ‘Come on, you can do it’. After all, none of this is really about us.”

Originally published in Flanders Today

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