There are currently 141 elephants in circuses and 540 in zoos across Europe. Knowing the mental and physical pain that captivity causes elephants, however, many European countries are stepping up and enacting bans on the use of elephants in circuses, and it appears as if the tide against elephant captivity is turning for the better. The only problem is, there are no sanctuaries in Europe that can care for retired elephants. So sadly, because there is no better alternative for these animals, they are forced to stay in their situations, which prolongs their suffering.

For example, Baby, the elephant belongs to a dilapidated roadside circus/zoo in Italy that is no longer in business, but she has been forced to remain in shackles, kept by the person who has exploited her for her entire life. She suffers from a severe leg condition and spends her days rocking back and forth with extreme boredom and frustration. Tragically, this is the only option she has.


The same is true for elderly elephants in zoos. Zoos do not guarantee care for animals for the duration of their lives, but can sell, trade or euthanize them when they are no longer considered profitable. Zoo elephants are highly prone to arthritis or other foot problems that result from standing on a hard concrete surface, and around two-thirds of captive elephants display stereotypic behaviors, such as rocking back and forth mindlessly, that are symptomatic of their deep mental distress. Keeping these animals on display only causes their mental and physical ailments to persist and progress. Given the fact that foot injuries are the leading cause of euthanasia amongst elephants, allowing them to stay in these conditions can lead to their premature deaths.

Europe’s captive elephants desperately need a place where they can retire and enjoy freedom and the company of other elephants during their twilight years. While these animals should have never been taken from the wild in the first place, because we have deprived them of the natural lives they could have had, we at least owe them a chance to experience freedom in retirement. Luckily, thanks to the kind founders of Elephant Haven, this chance will soon become a reality for Europe’s elephants.

A Better Future for Elephants

After working with elephants for years in a zoo environment, Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur, began to recognize the injustice of not allowing these animals a place to retire. Because the elephants had been taken from the wild at a very young age and spent the duration of their lives in a zoo, they become entirely dependent on people for care.

“Relocating the elephants back to their country of origin is not always a realistic option,” Sofie tells One Green Planet, “but creating a safe haven for them in Europe is.”




Sofie and Tony are incredibly passionate about the animals they care for and understandably developed a sense of obligation to provide them with a life outside the confines of captivity. This lead them to learn more about retired elephant sanctuaries which lead them to volunteer and before long, they founded Elephant Haven, their every own sanctuary.

“The elephants that will come to Elephant Haven will have a 24 hour care,” explains Sofie, “they can spend their days on nice organic farmland, bath in a natural lake or spend time in a mud pool. They will have the opportunity to choose day and night to be in the heated barn or sleep outside under the stars, but most of all, the elephants will have a place for the rest of there lives at Elephant Haven.”

Elephant Haven



The pair have spent the past three years drawing out plans for the sanctuary and have finally found the perfect plot of land in the Limousin region of France. Sofie an Tony have consulted with a number of experts, including Katherine Connors of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand, to create the ideal habitat for retired elephants. The plot they have selected is 60 acres and would allow them to care for a maximum of 10 elephants, but once they are up an running, they plan to expand to take in more elephants in need.


Elephant Haven


Sofie and Tony have secured a deposit on the land and worked with the local Mayor to get all the necessary permits and contracts, now they are looking to raise funds so that they can pay for the land in full. Their goal is to raise a total of 340,000 Euros by the end of March so that they can begin building and start taking in elephants as soon as 2016.

Educating Others

One of the primary goals that Sofie and Tony hope to achieve with Elephant Haven is to offer educational services and tours at the sanctuary.


“There will be guided tours, schools and groups can come over and do some activities, there will be a place available for workshops and conferences, but there will be NO DIRECT contact with the elephants,” says Sofie. “Elephant Haven will be a place with respect for animals, humans and nature.”

Lily and Mae Keow (2)


By allowing people to come see elephants in an environment that is more natural than zoo or circus, they can help to teach others about these magnificent creatures while promoting the message that don’t belong in captivity.

Over her years working with elephants, Sofie has learned an enormous amount from them. “Respect, friendship, tenderness, playfulness, intelligence, mother-child bond, forgiveness,” the list could go on and on, but above all, Sofie has been impressed by the elephant’s ” beautiful values of life, the little things that people forget.”

We stand to learn so much from elephants, but we can never do this if we put them in zoos and circuses and inhibit their ability to just be.

How You Can Help

Europe’s elephants are in desperate need of our help and the sooner we act, the sooner they can leave their miserable lives in captivity and begin the rehabilitation process at Elephant Haven. These animals never belonged in zoos or circuses in the first place, but now it is up to us to give them to most care and freedom available, in the form of a sanctuary.



Elephant Haven is set to be the first facility that can offer Europe’s elephants an alternative to a life in entertainment. You can help Tony and Sofie achieve their goal of providing elephants with a better life by donating to their IndieGoGo campaign, here

We are so pleased to see that these elephants will finally get the sanctuary they deserve and thank Tony and Sofie for their incredible compassion for these amazing animals.

All in-text image source: Elephant Haven

Lead image source: Valarie/Flickr