Jessica Summers - Working At The Elephant Sanctuary

Jessica Summers came back to school to realize her dream, caring for elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

May 28, 2014

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I always knew that I loved animals. I have many fond memories of family pets, of taking in stray dogs and cats and rescuing injured wildlife with my mother. She was a great influence in my appreciation and respect for all creatures. 

I originally attended the University of Maryland in 1996 and majored in Psychology. Needless to say, it wasn’t for me and I left the University in my sophomore year. After working for many years in the restaurant industry it finally occurred to me that I have a true passion for the health and welfare of animals and I went back to College Park. It was an interesting experience returning to a very different and evolved campus as a 30-year-old sophomore. Though it took me some time to get back into the routine of homework and studying, I found returning to college to be invigorating. I really wanted to be there. My classmates and professors were helpful and encouraging. It’s true what they say, “it is never too late.” 

Throughout my semesters at UMD, I volunteered at the National Zoo. My experience with so many types of exotic animals helped me to discover that I had an affinity toward elephants. In 2009, I had seen a news story about an elephant and a dog who were best friends living at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. This facility stuck out to me as somewhere that I would love to work. 

I spent the summer after graduation interning at The Clearwater Marine Aquarium in the Sea Turtle Department. I had the time of my life working on the beach protecting Loggerhead sea turtle nests and hatchlings. I applied to dozens of zoos and aquariums and The Elephant Sanctuary, twice. Finally, one day, I received a call from the Sanctuary. I couldn’t believe it. Soon, I was on my way to Tennessee to tour the facility and meet some elephants. I knew from the moment I saw an elephant standing before me that I wanted to work there, and now I do! 

I have spent the last four months at The Elephant Sanctuary getting to know 8 elephants, each unique and special in so many different ways. The elephants here have all been rescued from zoos and circuses and are here to live out the rest of their lives in peace, roaming 2,700 acres of beautiful Tennessee countryside. I spend each day feeding hungry elephants, providing enrichment, wrangling hay bales and shoveling manure, lots of manure! The elephants choose to be inside the barns more often when the weather is cold, so it was nice to start working here in the winter. I have been able to see the elephants up close and get to know their personalities. Once summer is in full swing, the elephants will be exploring their expansive wilderness home, not returning to the barn until winter. 

I am learning methods of training in a protected contact situation. We do not use any force, chains or any means of subordination with the elephants. All training is done using positive reinforcement to encourage the elephants to participate in their own medical treatments and care procedures. It is amazing how intelligent these creatures are and how well they respond to kindness and respect. The elephants enjoy their days with each other, grazing, playing and snoozing. The Sanctuary is not open to the public so there is not a single thing that the elephants have to do for humans. Sanctuary life is very different from that of animals in any other facility I have experienced. There is a perfect combination of animal care on an interactive level and conservation and protection of a species that has long been mistreated and has become endangered. I absolutely love my job. I love being a part of such a great mission to rescue and provide sanctuary for elephants. 

Thanks to all the knowledge and encouragement that I gained from my professors at College Park, some hands on experience volunteering and interning and a little self- determination I have turned a dream into a reality.