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The elephant orphanage

This story originally aired on April 9, 2006.

Stories about an orphanage are bound to yank at your heartstrings. The one 60 Minutes is going to tell you about is no exception -- even though many alumni of the orphanage have gone on to lead full and happy lives.

All these orphans are from East Africa. They were all abandoned when they were very young, less than two years old -- and they're all elephants. As correspondent Bob Simon reports, this orphanage is in Kenya, near Nairobi. It has been around almost 30 years. It's a large place. It would have to be.

It has just about everything you would want in an orphanage: dormitories -- each orphan has a private room. There is a communal bath, a playground, and a dining area. There are as many as 14 orphans here at any one time and they stay a number of years before going back to the bush. The regimen at the orphanage is anything but Dickensian. Unlike Oliver Twist, when one of these orphans asks for more, that's what he gets. More.

The principal, headmistress, head nurse and CEO of the orphanage is Dame Daphne Sheldrick. She founded the place and has been working with elephants for 50 years.

What is the most extraordinary thing she has learned about elephants?

"Their tremendous capacity for caring is I think perhaps the most amazing thing about them," says Dame Daphne. "Even at a very, very young age. Their sort of forgiveness, unselfishness -- they have all the best attributes of us humans and not very many of the bad."

Just about the best people you've ever met are the gentle men who work here.

They are called keepers, and they have extraordinary jobs. There is one keeper per elephant; he spends 24 hours a day with his charge, seven days a week. A keeper feeds his elephant every three hours, day and night, just like mom would.

He keeps his elephant warm, not like mom would, but with a blanket. When it's sleep time, the keeper beds down right next to his elephant. If he leaves, if ever so briefly, the baby wakes up and broadcasts his displeasure. The keepers are rotated now and then so that no elephant gets too terribly attached to any one of them.

At dawn, the elephants are taken from their dorms out to the bush. They hang out for a while and even play some games -- soccer is a favorite. The elephants decide when it's halftime by trotting off the field for a break.

The days are pretty much the same here. But on Fridays, the orphanage becomes a spa, when the keepers give the elephants a coconut oil massage.

"We can't do exactly what the mother can do, but we do something close to that," explains Edwin Lusichi, the head of the keepers.

Meeting an elephant for the first time requires a proper introduction, as Simon learned when he visited the orphanage. There is a protocol to meeting an elephant. He will offer up his trunk, and he expects you to blow in it. That way, he will remember your scent forever. You will never be strangers again.

The orphanage gets distress calls from all over Kenya -- and from all over East Africa -- that a baby elephant is on his own, often because his mother has been killed by a poacher. It is then a matter of great urgency: An orphaned elephant can only survive a few days without his mother.

The baby elephant is loaded onto a plane and flown back to Daphne Sheldrick's orphanage outside Nairobi, where he'll stay until he's strong enough to go back into the bush.

Dame Daphne, who was just named a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, has been running the orphanage for almost 30 years. She was born and raised in Kenya and married David Sheldrick, Africa's leading crusader against poaching.

When he died in 1977, she founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Back then, there were about 100,000 elephants in Kenya. Now there are about a quarter as many -- largely due to poachers. Then, as now, the ivory from their tusks is a very valuable commodity. From the beginning, Daphne saw her mission as saving as many elephants as possible.

"It's really lovely to see them now and then to think back how they were when they came in. It makes it all so worthwhile," says Daphne.

But her mission hasn't always gone smoothly. Twelve years ago, she was badly injured by a wild elephant and couldn't walk for 15 months.

Asked if during those 15 months she ever thought that maybe she should do something else, Dame Daphne says, "Oh, no. I mean, I still had all the elephants. Never occurred to me at all. You know, you can't just walk away from it."

One of the reasons why Sheldrick can't just walk away was discovered 300 miles away: a two-week old baby elephant, found in terrible shape. A large female, who may or may not be his mother, was burying him; that's what elephants do with their dead. A team from the orphanage rushed down, diverted the large elephant momentarily and quickly carried the baby to their vehicle. He was flown to Nairobi and driven though town to his new home where his new "mother" is waiting.

"He's obviously a starvation victim; been without mom for a very long time," Sheldrick observed.

He was in such terrible shape that no one expects him to make it through the night. The keepers nursed him constantly and named him "Ndololo," because that's the name of the place where he was found.

To their surprise, the next morning he was up on his feet. That's when they realized something quite shocking: The little boy is blind.

"We'd never dealt with a blind calf before, but he's the magic one, you know?" Sheldrick said. "He really is a joy to us. Because we never thought he'd live."

But Daphne never permits herself too much hope. That's because she loses half the elephants that arrive here. Some die from pneumonia, others from trauma.

Some of her elephants probably witnessed their mother's death and remember everything. That's the double-edged sword of having the memory of an elephant -- they never forget.

"You know he is still grieving for his elephant family. He's in shock. He's distressed," Daphne said.

Asked if she believes an elephant can die of grief, Daphne says she is certain they can. "They're terribly, terribly fragile."

What are the signs of an elephant grieving?

"Not wanting to feed. Listless. Not want to play. Not wanting to live," she explains. "And that can be very frustrating. You've got to try and turn their psyche around, duplicating what that elephant would have had in an elephant family. Touching them. Talking to him gently."

In other words, love.

"Tender loving care. TLC -- and a lot of it," Daphne explains.

Besides TLC, the elephants need milk. That's always been the secret and the stumbling block: A baby elephant cannot live without mother's milk, and needs it for more than two years.

For more than 28 years, Daphne struggled to develop a formula that would work, and failed. All the orphans died, but then, in 1982, she finally hit on it. Since then, she has saved the lives of 74 orphaned elephants.

"When the little orphans start to play, then you know you are winning," she explains.

That's because, aside from milk, the most important weapon in winning the battle is the other elephants. After a baby's first night here, the older boys and girls are brought around to meet him. It is the central rite of passage at the orphanage -- an essential part of the therapy.

There is also subsonic speech, which we humans can't hear but which Daphne thinks goes something like, 'Hey. This place is OK. These people aren't going to hurt you. The food's good. We get to play a lot. Chill.'

Daphne and the keepers may run this place, officially, but it's the elephants who are really in charge. For example, when a new keeper is hired, he is on probation for three months. Then, if the elephants like him, he's got a job. If not, he's out.

And the keepers try to teach the elephants.

"We have to teach them not to be naughty, not to push around with the others, to obey one another, just like you have to do to the children, your own children, and to respect the others," explains Edwin Lusichi.

The keepers also teach the elephants how to be elephants. There are wild elephant things these kids don't know how to do -- mother wasn't around to teach them. Things like covering themselves in dust to prevent sunburn. The keepers do it with shovels, until the elephants pick it up themselves.

It's actually a pretty lush life for the young elephants at the orphanage. But it's not the life of a wild elephant. It's not their destiny.

So like any good school, this place prepares its young charges to leave, to prepare for life in the real world, to go back to the wild from whence they came.

But not right away. You don't go straight from a nursery to the jungle. You need more schooling first. Therefore, the trust runs a sort of junior high school. It's a long day's drive away, in Tsavo National Park, the biggest park in Kenya.

In the park, there is a lot less supervision and a lot less milk. The elephants find most of their food themselves. There is no longer any concern about their survival. They are healthy and strong now.

Meeting these older elephants is far different from mixing with the babies back at the orphanage.

Those little 'kids' may bump you around if they don't like you, but the elephants in the national park are big. They may only be teenagers, but they've grown. Not only that, they hang out with elephants in the wild. They're in the process of becoming wild. So the time for cuddling is over.

One day, each elephant just wanders off into the wild and stays there. It is not at the prompting of anyone in the orphanage. There is no graduation ceremony. It is whenever an elephant feels that he is ready to go back where he belongs.

Back at the nursery, Ndololo, the little blind elephant, was doing well and was being taught to follow the sound of a stick that's banged on the ground by a seeing-eye man. He was getting spoiled rotten. He got more than just dust to protect his ears from the sun: he got sunscreen.

He also was seeing an ophthalmologist, who had wonderful news: Ndololo was getting some of his sight back.

But the doctor had another call to make. One of the elephants was not doing well at all and had been on antibiotics for two days. He could barely breathe.

His room looked like an intensive care unit. The doctor, Daphne and the keepers didn't leave him for a minute, doing everything they could. But it wasn't enough. By dawn, the elephant had died.

"How do you manage going through this all the time?" Simon asked Daphne.

"Well, you don't have much option, do you? There's another one to look after, and then another one coming and, you know, you just have to turn the page," she replied.

She admits she gets quite attached to the elephants -- and says turning that page is not easy.

"But, then, you go and you hang out with the orphans who are doing so well and it's, brings joy to your life," Simon asked.

"Absolutely," she said.

What brings particular joy to Daphne is that many of those who made it through nursery, who made it though junior high school and who've gone back to the wild come back to visit.

One elephant, Emily, is 12 years old now. She was the matriarch here but left the school two years ago. She comes back whenever she feels like seeing her old friends, the elephants and the keepers, and getting a tasty treat of ground-up coconut.

The keeper here wants to make sure we understand that while she's friendly, she's wild.

"What's she doing? Checking us out?" Simon asked, with a nervous chuckle.

"She's, you know, she's, let's move back. Let's move back. We have to move back. We have to move," the keeper instructed.

The keeper and the 60 Minutes team kept moving until Emily let them know that she was ready to take a meeting.

"So now Emily and I are OK?" Simon asked.

"Yeah," the keeper replied.

"Good. Emily, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Simon joked.

The day 60 Minutes left the orphanage, there was terrible news. Ndololo, the little blind elephant, had died. He just keeled over and died. Daphne and the keepers were devastated, the elephants were devastated. But the cycle keeps turning. Two elephants have since arrived at the orphanage -- and they are doing just fine.
By Michael Gavshon

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