She squeaked. She rumbled. She chirped. In fact, Northern Kentucky University senior Bethany Ellen made many elephant sounds as she talked of her love for pachyderms. But this love is no passing fancy. The public relations major has spent the better part of her life admiring, collecting and studying all things elephant.
The Elephant Connection
Her journey began with a simple thing: a trip to the circus. “When I was a kid I was terrified of clowns, but the circus always fell around my birthday,” Ellen says. "My parents thought it would be a great idea to take me to the circus...and I hated it."
But one act was tolerable, even through her fears. "I liked the acrobats and I liked the elephants, and often those were the same act," she adds. "That was probably my first experience." Ellen says it was then that elephants seemed to offer her comfort during a tough time.
As she grew up Ellen watched cartoons like Dumbo and Babar, which increased her elephant fascination. "I watched Dumbo more than any other VHS I had in my giant VHS collection," she recalls. "I was always obsessed with Dumbo."
Now as an adult, Ellen still gets that feeling of comfort from elephants. “I didn’t really connect with them on a more personal level until I came to college. I had a really rough time my first year," she says. "I think that they just provided me the same comfort they did when I was a kid.”
"I think it's just, like, they seem so calm," she explains. "They know what they're doing, they have a method...they're very thoughtful."
Ellen adds, "As someone who seeks to have intense control over everything in her life, I think that speaks to me a bit."
An Elephant Encounter
Two years ago Ellen joined an Animal Art Adventure experience at the Indianapolis Zoo, where she was able to interact briefly with one of the zoo's elephant herd, Tombi. As Ellen watched, Tombi did several tricks, including waving and painting a picture.
"They said, 'If Tombi doesn't want to paint she doesn't have to, but Tombi loves to paint, this is her favorite thing,'" Ellen remembers. "Then they said, 'do you want your painting now?' And I was like, 'well, yeah.' And they were like, 'okay, go get it."
Ellen says this was the first time she was able to get close to an elephant. "It was indescribable," she says. "She was very calm, I was not...she was just chilling and would not be bothered by my hysterics."
“I think when you see how beautiful and sentient these creatures are, it’s really hard to justify killing them for one piece of their body.”
"I think that's why I say they're very calm, because a lot of times you see these stories of 'elephant goes off the wire' or 'elephant is super aggressive.' They're not, until they're provoked, or until you hurt them in a deep and personal way, and I think that speaks to a lot of people."
Last year Ellen was with a friend on New Years Eve, and the two hatched a plan to start a photography business together. Ellen says she remembers walking around Michael's looking for a name, and that their combination of "elephant" and "photography" stuck.
"It's everything we are," Ellen says. "It's artistry and passion and all that cool stuff you get to put in your business direction." Elephotography, founded in 2015, shoots mainly weddings and portraits.
Ellen has also incorporated elephants into programs when she worked as an R.A. at Northern Kentucky University. Her biggest program, called Elephant in the Room, involved roommate conflicts and how to solve them.
Another program involved a personality test to determine different conflict styles. Ellen took the test and matched each conflict style with different elephants from The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. "That was fun, I had a lot of fun with that," she remembers.
"If you came and you brought your roommate, you got entered into the drawing to win elephant pillow pets for you and your roommate," Ellen says. "That's still the biggest program I've ever put on."
After sneaking into Ellen's work and personal life, elephants began to appear in her school life as well.
“Losing a species this big and this beautiful, not even bringing in the economical...and the social implications of it, is daunting enough for me. And I think it should be daunting enough for everyone.”
Studying Elephants Abroad
When Ellen found out about a study abroad program at NKU to Sri Lanka, she looked to see if elephants could be involved. After learning about the Sri Lankan species of elephant, she rushed to the study abroad office to sign up for the trip.
After hearing that it was too late to sign up for that trip, Ellen decided to start saving to go on another study abroad trip where she could see elephants.
"That's what prompted me to quit the I was currently in, not apply for rehire and start a photography business so I could afford the money to study abroad somewhere," she explains.
Ellen later found a course that was going to South Africa for three weeks in the summer, and she signed up. "I was like 'that's it, that's my place, that's where I'm going.'"
Saving from Extinction
But Ellen's love for elephants isn't just about seeing them in the wild. She also wants to help protect them from poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
“You read these books about these elephants that have lost mothers and herd members to ivory trade, and you know it’s a bad thing," she says. "And you realize, once you follow these sites, ‘hey, 96 elephants are killed a day, and elephants are about to go extinct.’”
Ellen adds that the threat of extinction, regardless of one's love for elephants, should be enough to save the species.
"Even if you don't love elephants, you can't justify killing elephants for the sake of a trinket or for the sake of this violin," she says. "Those musical instruments, they impact people and they build huge connections, but we have to find another way to do it so we don’t use connections for other people or for other animals.”
Ellen says she doesn't want the next generation to know elephants as a dead species. “I don’t want my kid to ever be like, ‘what’s that, when did that go extinct?’”
I don’t think anyone wants to have to tell their kid they can’t see elephants one day.”
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.