On August 22, 2014 African elephant Animal Ambassador Watoto crossed over into spirit. That morning the keepers at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle had found her collapsed in her outdoor exhibit. Efforts to try to get her back on her feet failed. Her condition worsened, and the humane decision was made to euthanize her.
I was saddened when I heard the news that day, and I knew that many others would be as well, including Chai and Bamboo—her elephant companions.
But Watoto’s passing brought up more than just sadness in others—it re-ignited the touchy issue of whether elephants should be kept in captivity at the Woodland Park Zoo (or in captivity at all, anywhere).
On behalf of Watoto I feel compelled to write this article to share her perspective, and in so doing fulfill the promise I made to her.
As an animal communicator and energy healer I regularly make visits to zoo and other rescue facilities to listen to the animals. I first began trying to connect with Watoto and her companions—Asian elephants Chai and Bamboo—several years ago.
My first few attempt fell on deaf ears—Watoto ignored me, and it was quite clear that she was the one in charge. It took a while to get her to trust me enough to even have a conversation.
I became aware that there were challenges that the elephants were struggling with: they were still mourning the loss of Hansa, their youngest herd member; the emotional and energetic drain of the sheer numbers of people who came to see them; Chai’s repeated artificial inseminations; aging related issues, etc.
I built a Bridge of Light for Hansa’s spirit, but when I asked if the herd would like to receive some Reiki and/or other forms of energy healing to help support them Watoto turned the offer down flat. She said that while the energy healing might help them feel better as individuals it would not change the big picture. She pointed out that if no one at the Zoo knew what was helping them then there would be no change for the better for all elephants. She wanted the energetic support and shifts to be publicly noted and acknowledged by the Zoo. Needless to say I had no idea how to make that happen—being very science based, most zoos are not yet aware of the kind of support that Reiki, shamanism and animal communication can offer.
Thinking over what Watoto had said, I was guided to ask if she and her herd would like to participate in our ceremonies—we would collect the personal prayers of the elephants and bring them to fire ceremony on their behalf. Watoto agreed, and we took our first steps together in rebuilding the bridge between people and the elephants.
In 2013, in response to growing controversy, the Woodland Park Zoo formed the Elephant Task Force to investigate what should be done for the best benefit of the elephants. Task Force members and speakers included local community leaders, international elephant experts, elephant sanctuaries, animal activists—in short, everyone BUT the elephants themselves.
I asked Watoto what her perspective was on all the aspects that the Task Force would study. I was expecting her to say something about enclosures, enrichment, food, etc. Instead Watoto said something completely different—something that no expert was considering—she said that what the elephants wanted most was for people and zoos to listen to elephants as equals. An extremely powerful message—one that could revolutionize not only how zoos relate to the animals in their care, but how the entire world relates to all animals.
I had no idea how to get Watoto’s message heard, but I felt called to attend one of the Elephant Task Force hearings. The majority of the speakers were all experts in their various fields relating to elephants. As I listened it was clear that everyone cared deeply about the elephants and wanted to keep them as healthy and happy as possible, however ideas differed (sometimes drastically) on what worked best.
Members of the general public (such as myself) were invited to submit comments via a suggestion box. So, along with a written comment, Debbie and I energetically placed Watoto’s message, our prayers for the animals, and gratitude for the Zoo listening, into the supplied form and placed it in the suggestion box. Not ideal, but a step in the right direction.
So I offered Watoto the only other platform to express herself to people that I had available—and she accepted.
In March 2014 she was to be a Master Teacher for class series Listening to Zoo Animal Ambassadors at the Woodland Park Zoo. And once again we would carry her prayers (and those of the other animals) to ceremony. Knowing that Watoto would be leaving the Zoo sometime later this year made doing so feel more important than usual.
We arrived at the elephant barn late in the day on March 15, and found Chai and Bamboo enjoying their enrichment treats. But we did not see Watoto.
I asked the keeper where she might be, and she told me that Watoto might be in the middle room where we could not see her. So I mentally contacted Watoto and told her that we were here with our prayer sticks and asked if she would come out and greet us—which she did for a little while. As she returned to her room she gave me this message from all the animals, “If you call us we will come, but if we come, you must listen.”
On March 28, 2014 the Elephant Task Force came back with their recommendations, most of which had to do with space and other forms of enrichment. Asian elephants Chai and Bamboo would continue to live at the Woodland Park Zoo, but it was with a heavy heart that I learned that Watoto was to be moved to another facility. The Task Force felt that it would be better for all to focus on only Asian elephants. I felt so badly for Watoto and her herd. It seemed as though Watoto’s prayers had not been heard—the voices of the elephants had been drowned out by the voices of the people. Based on all that she had shared with us I was certain that this was not the outcome that Watoto desired.
The last time I saw Watoto she was in the area around the corner from the Barn. She was standing right at the corner of the fence, the section closest to the walkway. She said, “I waited for you.” It was the last thing I recall her saying, and I remember feeling warm and fuzzy emotionally. Our relationship had come a long way.
When I learned that Watoto had crossed over the timing felt significant. It just so happened that the very next night I was scheduled to lead a group of people for the annual Evening Walk on the Wild Side at the Woodland Park Zoo. I felt that there must be some way to honor her memory and the messages that she had shared while we were there.
I contacted our guides at the Zoo and asked if it would be possible to get anywhere near the Elephant Barn. I explained that we simply wished to honor Watoto’s memory in some way. Normally the area is not available after-hours, and with her sudden passing I assumed that it would be off limits to the public even during the day.
I’ve been leading this event for a few years, and we had a new guide. Apparently she had received instructions and guidance from our previous guide for the last several years, because as we compared notes on where to go and when, our new guide was quite comfortable with all that I was suggesting on behalf of the animals. The woo-woo factor did not faze her.
Our guide asked me where I felt we should go for the ceremony for Watoto. Did we want to be at the Elephant Barn or perhaps in the area where Watoto had passed? I received a clear image of the same area around the corner from the Barn where I had seen Watoto the last time she spoke to me.
That evening, as we rounded the corner, I was surprised and awed to see that the elephants were outside. I had assumed that they would have retired to the Elephant Barn for the night. And Chai was waiting in the exact same spot where I had last seen Watoto, and Bamboo stood in the background. Off to the right of Chai I saw Watoto’s spirit—she was calm, strong and very much present. What followed was a sequence of events the like of which I have not previously experienced.
Chai raised her trunk to us in greeting, and I saluted her back.
I then asked Watoto what she wanted for a ceremony. Did she want a Bridge of Light built for her or energy sent back to the time of her crossing? No, she said, and added that she was not going anywhere for a while.
So what did she want? I felt her concern for her herd, which I could understand since she had been the matriarch—and now they were without a leader.
I took a shamanic look at Chai and Bamboo and saw that both were not grounded—they were out of body (a not unusual occurrence historically for them, and a normal response to the stress and trauma that would have surrounded Watoto’s passing).
In the past Watoto had been very clear that neither my students nor I were to offer any energy healing to them, so I asked Watoto what she wanted us to do. How could we help? And she floored me with her request. She asked our group to ground and center ourselves, to place ourselves fully into our bodies, and then with our hearts invite Chai and Bamboo to join our herd.
It took me a moment to recover emotionally. I was deeply touched that Watoto trusted me, and the people with me, enough to offer this moment of connection with the herd. I realized that I had won her trust by being willing to listen, and to respect her opinions and wishes. That trust was a priceless gift, but there was a bigger lesson.
When our group did as Watoto requested there was a distinct shift in energy. When we grounded, and then invited the elephants to connect with us, Chai and Bamboo became grounded. The entire area became filled with a sense of peace. Elephants and people became as one, and renewing that connection was healing for us all.
Thank you, Watoto, for teaching me about the importance of listening, patience and trust. I will do my very best to honor you by carrying your message and that of all the animals to as many people as possible: “If you call us we will come, but if we come, you must listen.”
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A WILD WAY TO HEAL
In private practice since 1996, Rose De Dan, Wild Reiki and Shamanic Healing, is an animal communicator, Reiki Master Teacher, shamanic practitioner, author and artist. As an animal shaman she views her mission as one of building bridges between people and animals through healing sessions, classes, ceremonies and events such as A Walk on the Wild Side: Answering the Call of the Wild.
Her book Tails of a Healer: Animals, Reiki and Shamanism features heartwarming stories about animals and their role in her evolution as an energy worker and shamanic healer.