Elephant Haven - A Sanctuary for Europe’s Circus and Zoo Elephants | Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur | Ep 95

Elephant Haven – A Sanctuary for Europe’s Circus and Zoo Elephants | Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur | Ep 95

Introducing Tony and Sofie

In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to Sofie and Tony who founded and ran an elephant sanctuary, in fact, the first-ever Elephant Sanctuary in Europe. Seb and I met Tony and Sofie way back in 2018 when we went to visit The Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary in France. We had been in contact with Tony asking if our group might visit the sanctuary for our Dordogne trip in 2020 and if we might visit during a scout.

They kindly agreed to show us around one beautiful spring day and what a lovely day it was. Now, I should add, that at this time, there were no elephants at the sanctuary yet. They spent a couple of hours showing us what they had built so far, their story, and their goal to try to be a place where elephants will live the rest of their lives in a much better situation than before.

As usual, Seb and I were in absolute awe of the work these people were doing. Of course, that Dordogne trip in 2020 did not go ahead, but we have actually rebooted that trip and you could be visiting this sanctuary. This sanctuary is not open to the public on our journey, on our A Taste Of The French Countryside: Romantic Villages & Valleys with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau which is happening in September 2023! This trip still has a few spots available and you can join us and visit  The Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary in France and meet Gandhi and Delhi!

In this episode, we discuss

  • How Sofie and Tony got involved in animal protection
  • Why there is a need for an elephant sanctuary in Europe  
  • Why they decided to create this space for elephants
  • What their long-term goals are for this sanctuary

Learn more about what we talk about

Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode

Connect with Tony and Sofie


Brighde: Hello, Sophie. Hello, Tony. Thank you so much for joining me on The World Vegan Travel Podcast

Sofie and Tony: Hello. Hello. Thank you for having us. Yeah, it’d be nice to see you again.

Brighde: Yes. We have been in contact on and off for many years because we have been, researching and planning, and putting together an incredible trip to the southwest of France for several years now. The trip was canceled because of Coronavirus but we do have another French countryside trip, which is a little bit different from Paris to Bordo.

We are including a visit to your sanctuary, but before we talk about the amazing work that you do, I’d love to know a little bit more about you and what it is that you’re doing in the animal protection space because you have a really interesting history.

Sofie and Tony: So I am Tony and I worked before in, uh, the zoo in Antwerp for more than 20 years and almost 15 years with the elephants. I was thinking about building a place where all the elephants can stay for the rest of their lives until they die. you had already some in the United States, but in Europe there was none. And then also because of the laws or changes in Europe with the wild animals are not in the circuses anymore. There was a place needed for the elephants and for many other animals. So we created an elephant haven. a bit the same story, always felt better with animals around me then started working in the zoo because that was like, Oh heaven, eh, you can be with animals and then start working the zoo for more than 20 years. More with great Apes. We became a couple. Yeah. And Tony came up with this idea cuz both of us wanted to do more for the animals. He came up with the idea, it should be great as a place after retirement and there was none in Europe. So then we started this adventure. Big research before. Yeah.

Brighde: I see. You are from Antwerp originally, from Belgium.

Sofie and Tony: Yep.

Brighde: So this is not where your sanctuary is. And would you mind telling us a little bit about how that process was? Like, how you went from idea, to where you are now, which is this small sanctuary, still just two elephants. But could you explain how that was and maybe some of the ups and downs associated with this kind of idea, particularly when it’s never been done in Europe before?

Sofie and Tony: Do you have five hours maybe?

Brighde: Maybe the five or 10-minute version.

Sofie and Tony: You came up with these ideas and started researching. Talking with many people visiting sanctuaries, asking for advice. From the beginning people said, you’re crazy. This is not a good idea. You won’t succeed. We met people also. They were thinking about it and starting the administration for sanctuary, and then they just dropped the idea because it was too complicated. So we started looking for a place. I’m going really fast through this process, yeah, looking for land in Europe. So we went to Italy, we went to France, different places, and we came back always to this region. More south was a bit too dry even too hot. We noticed this summer also. Here it’s green the whole year round. It’s beautiful nature. Lots of water, which is very important. Hay, fresh grass, there’s a lot of edible trees. So we thought, okay, this is a good region. It’s not known to the general public.
So we said, Okay, we go from here. Yeah, but then where to start cuz France and administration, it’s difficult. It’s not easy, or complicated. They always said to us, where to start? We understood because this is new for Europe, so new for France, they didn’t have an example. Still, they struggle. Yeah. Still they, with the idea of a sanctuary cuz where to place there. No rules. No. So they made up new rules for us. This took years to have lots of administration and not everybody was positive about the project. So we struggled to get all those permissions but we had the mayor and lots of other people supporting us and pushing us through. Eventually, we got permission, and after three years, it was of three years.
Yeah, for sure. Cause more or we had cupboards full of paperwork. Meanwhile, we had found good land and we had lots of volunteers and good sponsors. Yeah. With lots of volunteers, we maintain the land. We started putting already the outside fence. Yeah. But then we had to have the permissions before we could put the first barn. To find, money was also scary. Our mothers didn’t know all the problems we had. No. you have to take risks, but still, you need to be realistic. We always said this, if this doesn’t work, then we have to stop it. Then always there was somebody or an organization or a private person who help. You get a new boost and end up and it goes further and it goes further and goes further. Then we find all those kinds of partners, but then you have an empty barn, that’s even worst.

Brighde: That’s when we came to visit you, right? When you were putting up the fencing but also you had the barn up as well. It’s just such a lovely space. So you did all of this construction, which I’m sure was challenging. What happened next?

Sofie and Tony: Then we hear the elephants, a big struggle cuz one, one time we thought we have all door closed. It’s like the zoos didn’t want to work with us. The circuses, all those elephant owners, even the government. But then suddenly, there was an opening. The elephant owners have the last decision. Yeah.

Brighde: Hmm.

Sofie and Tony: They were not wanting still, they care for wanting to work with us. So it’s very political, very delicate. Mm-hmm. But we managed to sit around the table with Gandhi. 
 It was nice. We got contacted by our fit, who we working with. She said there’s an elephant in Brittany, in France. She was working with the zoo. They changed to new owners. They said they’re gonna rebuild the zoo, so she to go. The director, he’s very open-minded and he’s a young guy and he said, Okay, we will sit around the table with everybody and we had to have lots of green lights first. So it was very exciting. It took a while but we managed, and now I think there’s a bit more trust.

More trust maybe. Yeah. Like this, we have daily, which is, an incredible story also. Those keepers, they made this courageous decision to put daily, their child, their love, cuz she was there like 35 years. Yeah. There were three keepers working with Daily and one worked for 30 years with hers, the other one 22, and the other one 18, so it was very emotional. It was really nice for them. Oh, so nice people. They came here and they were so happy for her, yeah. It was nice. They refused two other zoos before they placed her here also. said, Oh no, she can’t go there. Then the director and one of the keepers who came here to see how we work with Gandy and what we did and our daily life is here, and they were like ok, Daily is up going to France and now we are, and we will stay like we are a little sanctuary, in Europe. Yeah. No, we have 29 nectars and we hope to be able to buy the 20 extra. So it’s a little sanctuary and we started little and soon we will expand. Elephant fans and second born, so more people work.

Brighde: Fantastic. Can you create a little bit of a picture of what a day in life is like running a sanctuary like this? Because I’m sure it’s a huge amount of work for the two of you. Maybe you have some volunteers. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Sofie and Tony: There’s administration, of course, looking for funds the whole time and answering people’s questions and many social media. All those languages, that’s a big part, and then, of course, taking care of those beautiful girlies, which we realize it’s really Care. Yeah. It’s care, care like Gandy. So normally we start around eight 30. We go to the barn, we see, we check everything, and then we do like a morning routine there. We check the feet, we wash the feet, we check the teeth, everything they give medication and stuff like that. Gandy is totally different than Daily. Daily, she goes out, easily up. She will find some hay, some branches, stuff like that. And Gandy goes a little bit outside and comes back in. She likes to be in the barn when we are there, or the two caregivers are there and she likes just to be around somebody. When they clean the barn or we clean the barn, yeah, she’s sleeping even with the noise, everything. Yeah. Even they can always go outside whenever they want. But Gandy prefers to be a little bit more inside. We follow their rhythm. So it’s, each day it’s a bit different depending on what they need and everything. Of course, there’s cleaning to do, and outside, inside lots of arrangements, to get branches, getting wood to heat the barn. It’s the care, so they got their health issues and lots of abscesses and foot care to do and stuff. Yeah, we do our best. So they feel good. We spoil them. Yeah. If we have volunteers, we try to keep them busy also with a vegetable garden, the greenhouse, and getting them to the woods to collect branches. Now, we have nice patches of nettles, so they can cut nettles.
The volunteers, don’t work with the elephant. No. It’s us and we have two keepers. Great elephant keepers, girls. Sophie another Tina. We are so happy and we have other elephant keepers’ friends who come and help us once in a while. Now we have computer work to do. Then nine o’clock or 10 o’clock we go again to the barn. Check up to check and see if they need something. 

Brighde: That sounds like a huge amount of work, a lot of hard physical work as well. You spoke a little bit about this before, but I’d love to know a little bit more about it. Obviously, elephants are not native to Europe. We can’t just release them into the wild for so many reasons. But what are really the main issues regarding elephants in Europe? Is it that there are some in zoos? Because I imagine that once elephants get older, they have more health issues, and maybe zoos might not want to commit to looking after them at this period of time in their life. I’m not sure if that’s true, also you have a lot of traveling circuses as well, so could you talk a little bit more about like why a sanctuary like yours is needed in Europe?

Sofie and Tony: We are here for the solitary elephants and zoos to stop because there’s more and more think, to have bigger enclosures. Also, I think some zoo are well aware that they exhibit like Ústí Zoo in the Czech Republic. They didn’t find the exhibits suitable for two or three elephants. That’s why they said, we can’t have two elephants here. It’s not good. They decided, we gonna rebuild another species and now we go from there. We also had another zoo calling us. They had two elephants and they want to stop the zoo. So it’s things like this, that we encourage. Then you have the laws changing and almost every country in Europe now is banning wild animals in circuses and France was almost the last one. The law is official but the circus people have now seven years to look for a solution. Yeah. So now we are working with the government, and we are talking about how we can help. So it’s good progress also. 
 We hope here to work together. We always say we are here for the elephants. We are not here to criticize. We are not here to point fingers. We are just here for the elephants. they want to place their elephant here, they’re welcome. If they want to come and see first how we work, and what we do, we are open for the people to meet us and to talk around in a normal way.

Brighde: I love it. I love it. Okay. Something you mentioned I’m curious about was that you do have volunteers. Now I’m imagining, because I have been to your sanctuary, it’s quite a rural location, so something I’m wondering is whether, people can come and volunteer for one week or one month, and stay with you or close by in the local village and volunteer and support. I know they don’t get to have a lot of hands-on work, for the elephants, but I think that would be quite nice. Is that something that you offer?

Sofie and Tony: We don’t offer places to sleep. Cause, we want to give as much to the elephants as possible and we thought this would help also the local community. If people can be here for a week, for example, it depends on the work that has to be done, but they have to have a car, that’s for sure. Yeah, look for something to sleep in, everybody’s different. you can choose the camp size you can choose a castle, you can choose bread and breakfast. Yeah, there are a lot of things to choose from. Yeah. We provide lunch for the volunteers but then morning and evenings it’s up to them.

Brighde: I absolutely love that because your sanctuary is not open to the public. It’s not like you have guided visits that people can come and do on a Saturday afternoon. So this is one way that people could maybe see and spend a little bit of time observing these elephants and helping you out. Of course, the other way is to join our Joyful Vegan trips with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau because we are so thrilled that you have kindly offered our travelers on that trip the opportunity to visit this unique and incredible space. I’m just so thankful for you because something we always try to do when we are on a trip is to showcase and highlight the amazing work that’s being done by people in the animal protection movement.
So if anyone’s listening to this and they would like to see and get a properly guided visit that’s not usually available to members of the public, then they should definitely sign up for this trip. So I wanna thank you so much for that. Are there other ways that people can support what it is that you are doing?
Because social media, for better or worse, it’s really hard for people, even if they follow you, to see your stuff. So how can people support you and learn more about what you are doing and learn about new elephant arrivals? And so on.

Sofie and Tony: So we have a website, of course. If they can subscribe to the newsletter. Yeah, it’s a free newsletter. People can always write us or call us if they have questions and of course, yeah, we have like the fostering Gandhian daily, that’s 45 euros per year you can already sponsor, one of the girls. This can help us so much with their daily care because they have lots of medications, of course, and vitamins, food, and stuff like that. So that would be a big help, of course. Volunteering, it’s mostly outside and hard work, just love nature and elephants. It’s a bit cliche, but an animal, Sorry. The thing is, it’s so hard for us to even now to say we depend on donations. Yeah. 200% for the elephants and to give them a nice retirement. There’s always something that we need, always, always.

Brighde: Well, definitely listeners, I really invite you to go and check out what they’re doing and consider a donation. Whenever it is that you give your donations out for the year. I cannot imagine a better cause than Elephant haven. What you do is remarkable, looking after these animals is such a huge responsibility and so much work and, I just have so much respect for what it is that you do. Thank you so much.

Sofie and Tony: Thank you for having us, we look forward. Look forward to seeing you on 6 September.
As you said, we are normally not open to the public but we’ve been talking about this visit for three years. 

Brighde: Fantastic. Thank you.

Sofie and Tony: You’re more than welcome. Thank you. Thank you.

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This trip is still in the planning stage, but you can expect:

Scheduled for September 2025
100% vegan local French cuisine
stay in a château!
Visit castles and medieval villages
17,000 year-old prehistoric cave art
Visit & tasting at a Loire winery

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