Massage and the Exotic Animal

By Kieran McConnellogue

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May2002.

Elephants in the wild are wanderers. They typically cover about 10 miles a day, foraging for food, enjoying the company of the herd and indulging their curiosity. But the wild is not where many elephants are found these days. They are captives in zoos, attractions at circuses and working animals in parts of Asia. And their new lifestyle brings about a host of physical and emotional issues for these highly intelligent, gregarious creatures — issues that are only now beginning to register on the radar screens of their keepers.

Massage is quickly becoming one of the tools used to alleviate the physical and emotional stress of exotic animals in captivity, from 4-ton African elephants to dolphins and penguins. Those who work with them are finding that the results of benefits experienced by humans — reduced stress, improved physical and emotional well-being, better overall health and enhanced healing, among others — can translate to animals who have been removed from their natural habitat and confined in one way or another.

Massage on animals is nothing new. Household pets have always benefited from the touch of petting. But increasingly, massage is one of the perks of domestication for many dogs and cats. And as with human athletes, massage is a growing and important part of the training routine for racehorses and other working equines. But it is a relatively new practice for exotic animals. Its rise coincided with increased concern about both the physical and emotional health of captive animals. Whether in zoos, circuses or aquariums, confinement brings a physical and emotional toll that these animals, and often their handlers, are not prepared to deal with.

“They’re exposed to so many different things; therefore it is so essential for them to have their lives enriched in captivity,” said Elke Riesterer, a certified massage therapist who, in addition to her practice for humans, has worked with elephants at the Oakland Zoo for the past four years. “I try to make their life a little better.”

By all accounts, she’s succeeded at the work she does on a voluntary basis. What began as an experiment four years ago is now a twice-a-month routine for Riesterer, who travels 80 miles one-way from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., to Oakland to work on Donna, M’Dunda and Lisa, the zoo’s African elephants. She began after meeting Colleen Kinzley, the Oakland Zoo’s elephant curator, at a meeting of the Performing Animal Welfare Society. They discussed some of the issues facing elephants, and Kinzley agreed to allow Riesterer to try her hand with her charges.

Riesterer has been fond of animals of all sorts since her childhood in Germany. Touch has also been a big part of her own life. Massage helped alleviate the scoliosis she suffered from as an adolescent, and she entered the massage therapy field after moving to the United States in 1983. She built a practice, but also found time to work on a horse that had been given to her as a gift. During trips to Africa, she had the chance to massage orphaned elephants and rhinos that were treated at a game preserve before being returned to the wild. Her success early on and her passion for animal welfare led to the experiment in Oakland. But to make it happen, she had to convince not only a skeptical curator, but also zoo vets and handlers, and even the animals themselves.

So how do you go about massaging an elephant? Like the old joke about how you eat one, the answer is “one part at a time.” The elephants Riesterer works on are somewhat confined in a restraining chute. Although not specifically a practitioner of the TTouch method developed by Linda Tellington-Jones, she incorporates its gentle clockwise circular motions into her work with elephants. “Besides adding to an animal’s emotional well-being, it has a wonderful capacity to help speed up the healing process in case of physical injury,” she said.

She begins with their feet, often a problem spot for large, roaming animals forced to a sedentary life. Riesterer then works up each leg and progresses to the animals’ massive ears (home to reflexology points), and then massages the face (even inside the mouth) and the tail. Each session lasts less than an hour, about all the zoo will allot. Riesterer said that although it is not near enough time to cover the huge animals, it is sufficient to do some good.

Perhaps the most important part of the process is gaining the trust of animals that don’t communicate verbally. “You learn about the responses and body signals,” she said. “The essence of it is not that different from humans. They give you all kinds of signals when they like something. When they accept the touch, the signals of relaxation are clear to see – a glazing look in the eye, a trance sign and the head drops down. They’re so highly intelligent that they know I am there to give them kindness and comfort.”

Which is not to say that massage on wild animals is always easy or safe. “You must have your senses on all the time,” she added. Riesterer, who has also worked on giraffes and Scottish Highland cows, said it is important to attune to the signals animals send, especially when dealing with injured or sensitive areas. Like humans, animals hold traumatic experience in tissue and muscles.

“With an animal, you find those parts of the body that tell you something,” she said. “Avoid them, then gently and briefly go back. It’s a dance. An animal will let you work on those areas in its time.”

The benefits can be tremendous. Sick or injured animals, like humans, have an almost-primal response to touch. “Massage is massage — it’s just the anatomy you have to get to know,” said Anthony Guglielmo, author of Walrus on My Table, a chronicle of his experiences practicing bodywork on exotic, and some not-so-exotic, animals. Since 1996, he has worked on more than a dozen different species of animals, including walruses, dolphins, pigs, beluga whales, birds, penguins and sandtiger sharks.

The sideline to his practice on humans began innocuously enough. A client at his practice in New York insisted that Guglielmo work on Champ. He tried to remember if Champ was her husband’s name. But the client told him that Champ was her horse, and previous owners had abused him. Guglielmo declined, several times, but the client was insistent. Intrigued by the idea, he decided to attend an equine massage training program. After earning his certificate, he worked on horses like Champ and the occasional dog or cat.

Guglielmo became interested in the possibility of massaging exotic animals while on vacation in the Florida Keys. During a visit to a center where dolphins swam with cognitively-delayed and terminally ill children, “I thought it would be nice to give back to the dolphins,” he said. But the handlers told him it would take at least three weeks for the animals to get used to him. “If you’re not in that community, they don’t want to let you in too easily,” he said.

He also faced the skepticism about animal massage among many veterinarians and trainers. Determined to find a way to help animals, he returned home to New York and contacted the New York Aquarium, asking if he could arrange to learn about and work with dolphins. Initially, they were intrigued by the idea. But Guglielmo soon received a call from the aquarium, asking if he would be interested in working with Nuka, a 15-year-old walrus that had lost the use of her rear flippers. Rather than sculling, the locomotion the 1,800-pound animal used to move, Nuka was pulling her entire weight with the front portion of her body.

Guglielmo took an approach that became standard practice in his work with exotic animals. He learned as much as possible about their anatomy, consulted with their keepers and sought advice from veterinarians. With Nuka, as with all animals he has worked on, the initial contact was focused on getting used to one another and building trust. “They know whether you’re there to help them or to hurt them,” he said.

Over several months of 20-minute sessions, Guglielmo saw steady progress and eventually was able to restore Nuka’s movement. Even though he was able to build up trust with the animal, the sessions weren’t without dicey moments. After discovering a sensitive area, he came eye to eye with an upset walrus. He stayed calm, talked gently to the animal and escaped with a lesson. “When it comes to working on people, a therapist should know when a person is feeling pain. But you don’t want an animal saying ‘ouch,’” he said. “You really have to be aware of their body language.”

Easier said than done, especially when the animal’s handlers don’t always know how to read its body language. Guglielmo once was called to work on a sandtiger shark named Baby that displayed an odd, corkscrew motion in its swimming. The nearly 8-foot-long, “mildly aggressive” shark was put in a harness while Guglielmo worked on it. He discovered the shark not only had an air bubble beneath its skin, but also suffered from scoliosis. After providing a couple of the treatments, then teaching the staff how to continue work, the shark showed noticeable improvement.

All the work on exotic animals was bound to capture the attention of the media, but Guglielmo wasn’t quite prepared for the implications. National Public Radio called, intending to do a four-minute piece on his work. The producer was so excited by the story that he doubled the length. After the program aired, Guglielmo received calls from New York newspapers as well as Time and People magazines, all of which published articles. The NPR piece also caught the eye of a book publisher, who urged Guglielmo to write what eventually would become Walrus on My Table. “I was amazed by all the attention for this simple thing I did,” he said.

And while the media attention has been nice, even if overwhelming at times, Guglielmo has never been in it for the fame or money. He has never charged for his services, even though he is in high demand. He has lectured at universities, made presentations to groups such as the International Marine Animal Trainers Association and given demonstrations around the world. But in the end, he works on exotic animals for the same reasons he works on humans or horses — to help a fellow creature feel better.

And in a simple twist of fate, it also makes him feel better. “I have always looked at working with animals as my therapy,” he said. “With the animals, I’m getting a reward and there are no strings attached.”