Steve Koyle has spent more than 29 years caring for animals, the last 17 years specializing in elephant care. He dedicated his life to improving elephant lives globally and established Elephant Care Unchained after his eye-opening experience in India as a skilled volunteer for wildlife rescues. Currently, he travels around the world visiting facilities where elephants reside, providing hands-on care to them, improving their welfare standards and leading workshops and seminars to anyone who is responsible for the direct or indirect care of elephants.
“Welcome to the Animal Professionals podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free platform designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only place that automates local rides and transports. Now on with our show!
Steve Koyle earned a degree in Zoology from Michigan State University. A year later, he began working at the Wildlife Waystation in Los Angeles, California, where he cared for exotic animals, including chimpanzees, lions and tigers. Steve joined the Phoenix Zoo in 2002, as an elephant keeper and found his passion for elephants. Since then, Steve has become an expert in target training, using positive reinforcement, designing facilities that sport elephant health and specializing in proper elephant foot care. He has now established Elephant Care Unchained, a 501C3 organization, dedicated to eliminating cruelty and improving elephant welfare in countries around the world.
Hey, Steve, Thanks for coming on today. Thanks for having me, Chris. I appreciate it. Yeah. I’m really excited to have you. I mean, you’ve got such a long career in helping animals, so why don’t you tell us about you and how you found your passion for elephants. Basically, since a young boy, I guess I had a passion for animals. I grew up in Michigan and I used to fly by myself, to a goat farm, Nedsin, Tennessee. when I was about 12 or 13. My mom and my brothers would drive down about a week later. I used to go, there’s a goat farm and I could go and help out a goat farmer milk the goats, collect chicken eggs, feed the cows, love pigs, dogs and cats. All that good stuff. That was kind of like outside of the normal dog and cat thing, just kind of morphed into, past almost 18 years now, caring for elephants.
Now, you have a degree in Zoology, so you decided you wanted to go to school for this and learn more about it. Yeah. you know, going through college or going to school, back in the day, is kind of like the thing to do. You go to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted work with animals and so Zoology was the best thing to study, I guess. A lot of things that I learned in college, don’t necessarily help with what I do today or I would remember. Thank God for the curve, right? If there was the curve, I’d still be in college, I guess.. But I was persistent and I got through it and it led me to, I was training dogs for a little while, just prior to taking the job at the Phoenix Zoo, in 2002, so.
And so when you started working at the zoo, is that really where you got exposed to elephants or had you had exposure before that? Everyone loves elephants, right? How can you not? You don’t really know. I’ve been around so many animals in my life. My career. When you’re around elephants, you’re realizing that you are, you’re not an elephant person, for many reasons. They’re big, it’s physical work, they’re dangerous. It’s hard work. I mean, flip side of that. They are incredibly sophisticated, incredibly intelligent. They deserve a lot more of what we’re doing for them. You don’t know that. So when there’s a job available, when I was trying to, I never really wanted to work in a zoo but I wanted to work with animals, so that was kind of the opening, to kind of do that. I had some experience prior to taking the zoo job. But I took the job and I fell in love with three elephants there.
So then that kind of opened up your eyes to what was going on with elephants around the world and then decided, Hey, I need to do something. Absolutely. I was an elephant keeper for 14 1/2 years. But after 10 years I went on a trip to India, so I borrowed my zoo retirement fund because I wanted to go and the Zoo wasn’t helping me at that point, to go there. So I met some people who had an organization in India. They had six elephants, at the time. I went there and I was really blown away, shocked by the treatment of elephants in native lands. You know, for many years I always felt bad for the elephants in my zoo, for many reasons, I had spot for them. But then when I went to India and I saw kind of on the front lines, I was like man, the elephants in the zoo really have nothing to worry about. I saw the things that I saw and still see them to this day, unfortunately.
So I’m just curious. I mean, why do you think that is? I mean, I don’t have that much experience with elephants except maybe in zoos. Or you hear about, you know, in circuses and stuff like that, which seems really cruel. But maybe tell us a little bit more about what’s going on with them around the world. I’ve been in six countries, currently, helping elephants, and they all have very different situations. Culturally, for example, Thailand uses elephants for tourism, so you could do all kinds of fun things with elephants there. In India, they’re used in temples, for religious purposes. But in both of these circumstances, the elephants are incredibly mistreated in order to get them to the point, and you could do anything with them. If that makes sense without being too graphic. Sure. It does, it’s just different places you go. And there’s different motto, people, places. Indonesia model like Thailand, for example, and places in Sri Lanka will model India, but there aren’t really many good healthy models or proper elephant welfare for a really healthy place. There’s a lot of not very good places.
Yes, so now you go into the place and then you’re trying to help them learn how to work with the elephants, in a more positive way. Absolutely. Yeah. Again different levels. Like, for example, there’s this great place that I’m at the Elephant Valley Project here in Cambodia, where I’m at right now. These guys are already on the forefront. And so what I do here is I kind of enhance these elephants’ lives. These elephants have about 1500 spectators, they’re basically semiwild elephants. But when I first started coming here, I asked them, what happens if the elephant has a problem with its foot? I don’t know. I said, Well, can you take care of it? They said no. So then we said, Okay, well, let’s start being proactive in our care. So what I do here, I was brought here to help with a particular elephant, in Zambo with really bad feet and that kind of thing. But outside of that, it’s about being proactive, training these elephants to pick up their feet. Because feet are very important for elephants. So to get an issue, we train them to pick their foot up so that they’re used to it because these elephants aren’t trained to lay down or to pick their feet up, they’re trained for different things. What I did here was I exposed them to a more proactive approach.
There’s other places that I’ll go, that are kind of on ground zero. Those are places that inspire me, places where elephants are chained in cages, for example. Terrible things that I’ve seen all over the world. I need to be helping those elephants. I need to be giving those elephants, one day. Trying to rephrase, one day, one day of freedom, one day of compassion, one day of love, one day of something positive in their lives. Because so many captive elephants, Asian elephants, particularly in Southeast Asia, never know a free step, never know, have free choice. And it’s really a tragic story. And I’m trying to alleviate that the best I can.
So how do you find out about these places? You’ve mentioned a number of different countries, but I mean, I’m just curious. How do you find out about these elephants in need? I’ve been doing this for almost 18 years now, and so I’ve developed a network of people. And then word gets out that I’m pretty good at this. And so I go to India for, say, people will contact me and say, Hey, can you come and help us with our elephants? Or can you go and take a look at this elephant and maybe write a report about this elephant here? There are a few places in Thailand that welcome me there, and I go and help their elephants, particularly I come here, to Cambodia. So it just kind of depends on what’s going on. I just recently started a project in Vietnam, so because of my work in other places, people get wind of it and request me to go there. Basically, what I do is make whatever this is, be whatever the eldests life is, I make it better. Regardless of the situation. Regardless of the circumstance, I can make your life better, to some degree.
I was curious if people welcome you, or if this is something that’s a little bit more contentious, when you’re going in there and trying to teach them the proper care. The other worlds are very, very controversial. Nobody really gets along. Unfortunately, I wish that that would change because ultimately it’s not the elephants’ fault. And for me, I’m just there to help the elephants. And because I help these people, it doesn’t mean that I dislike these people or I can’t help these people. It’s not the elephants’ fault, and I can help any elephant in this world, and that’s what I’m trying to do. So some places welcome me with open arms, and I’m happy to go to those places. What inspires me is going to places that don’t necessarily want me to go there or even, basically, they don’t know. And so it is about helping the elephants in the really, really, really bad situations, that really kind of inspire me to help them.
Do you need a simple way to capture video of your animals, your fundraisers and your events? Are you tired of struggling to get videos from your volunteers and staff, in one place where you can use them for social media marketing? Do you need help editing your raw videos into amazing video stories that get animals adopted? Then check out RescueTUBE, where we’ve simplified the process of capturing and editing your videos. Here’s how it works. Simply download the Doobert app, type in your code and start recording. The videos and photos automatically upload your Doobert dashboard, so you can download them on any device. Now, videos from daily walks, training sessions, foster homes and even adoption days can be easily captured and automatically uploaded in one place. Then, you can either edit the videos yourself or send them to the RescueTUBE professionals to curate into amazing video stories. Imagine the awareness and marketing you could bring to your organization. Learn more Rescue.TUBE so you can start collecting videos from everyone.
So walk us through a little bit, what you do to help them? I mean, is it helping them to train and to connect with the elephants? Certainly, it sounds like foot care is a big problem, as well. Yeah, there’s so many things. There’s so many things that I can do. Basically, let’s just say if there’s an elephant that I go and visit and it’s on four leg chains, if I could give you a vision of getting you a slide show, it would be easier to explain. Basically, it’s not a very healthy environment. Elephants chained to the floor on concrete, staring at the floor, either being hit or being demanded to go somewhere, do something unsafe. Whether it’s a parade rolled back on the street, that life is not good. But what I can do is, I can provide different ways of feeding the elephant. For example, some called enrichment, where we would hang food above the elephant’s head. So it’s not just staring at the ground, eating food, whatever. Just rocking, swaying in a stressed out way. It would still be chained, but you could feed it differently. So it’s mind is at least stimulated. Right? Then maybe you can say, maybe we can take off one of these chains. Maybe we can lose a chain or two. Maybe if we have to chain them, can we be more humane about what we’re doing? You know where I am now, it’s like, I’m training the elephants to pick their feet up, in doing what’s called, Target Training with positive reinforcement. So I have a little stick in my hand and the elephants’ taught to touch the stick with parts of its body, and I give it food so that we can take care of it. So there’s so many things involved. You know, I am kind of globally recognized as a foot care expert last professional, but I’m not just that I’m able to train elephants. I’m able to help design facilities that improve their health. But getting him off of concrete, putting them on a softer substrate. Lots of things that regardless of how they’re kept. I could make that better. There’s just so much to talk about. So what’s to do? It’s kind of hard, but in a nutshell, I make their lives better by improving their welfare.
So now how long do you stay in a particular place before you move on to the next country? Well, right now it’s kind of a visa issue or if I have a particular job. So here, I’m here for 30 days because I’m here on a visa. You’re allowed to stay 30 days and can’t extend it. Because I was in Vietnam for two weeks. I was in Thailand before that, for about a month. I kind of go until I have a new project or Visa runs out, or I have scheduled somewhere else to go. But it never really stops. This is my fourth time coming here in 2 1/2 years and you do stuff and you come back and build upon what you did. You teach the staff how to do certain things. you keep building upon that. It’s not fair to think that you are really making a difference if you show up one time and do something. It’s kind of a commitment. On numerous parties.
I’m curious, then what is your goal for Elephant Care Unchained and why did you form the organization? And what do you hope to achieve? My goal is to help every single elephant in this world. I want to eliminate all the unnecessary pain and suffering that these elephants go through on a daily basis. I’m just trying to do my best to do that. This all got started when I left the zoo, in June of 2016 and then six weeks after that, I applied for my nonprofit status. And then the zoo, in a sense, held me back in a lot of ways. I was asked to leave the zoo, it’s bad because I still love those elephants to this day, and I never would have left them. But I was asked to leave the zoo, and ultimately everything happens for a reason. I had some other personal things involved in that moment. But now I’m in six countries, helping hundreds of elephants and Elephant Care Unchained, yes, it’s about unchaining elephants, but it’s more of a symbol for me, me that I’m unchained. I’m free to help. I’m free to do what I need to do to help these elephants.
Yeah, that’s really cool. So what’s your future look like? What does 2020 look like for you? 2020 really looks great. More stuff that I do, more people want me to go help, more places to go. It’s all about getting donations to continue this. I’ll be in Indonesia for a couple of weeks for about a month and I’ll be in TruLanka. I’ll be in Thailand after that. So January Indonesia, Thailand, February. Trulaka about a week, in March. Then I may go home to the States for about six weeks or so to do some fundraising, just to kind of regroup, see the family and plan all over and do all over again. It’s doing projects I’m getting excited about. You just keep going as hard as it is, as emotionally draining as it is, as helpless as you feel sometimes, it’s worth it when you can help just one elephant.
You must have some amazing stories. Is there any particular story that comes to mind that you want to share? Without pictures, they’re hard to talk about, but I could just kind of say, elephants are the greatest thing on the planet. If humans were better beings, they’d be elephants. And the capacity that elephants have to forgive us, meaning people for what we’ve done to them, is what really makes them remarkable. Pretty much every captive elephant, should pretty much smash everybody they’ve ever come in contact with because of what they go through, to be in captivity. And they’re that great of a species that they don’t smash us. They don’t kill us. They trust us to some capacity and we just don’t deserve them. They’re just that good of a species. That’s really interesting to think about. And like you said, you’re raising awareness of the ways that they’ve been abused. And it’s not just in the US, it’s in all these countries around the world. And we’ve taken advantage of these very intelligent, magnificent creatures. And as you said, they don’t seem to hold it against us.
Correct. Yeah, it’s amazing. I know a lot of it is like they’re psychologically abused physically, but also psychologically threatened. You know, they’re just very traumatized. I know that attributes to a lot of it, but also when they have a chance to maybe hurt somebody, for the most part, they don’t. It takes a lot to push an elephant to get to a point in a lot of videos that you’ve seen, to really injured people, to go after somebody. It just goes to show how great when you can see them. You know, when I work with some animals here and there, you can see them trying to figure me out. What’s this guy talking to them, kind of sweet. Give them food. I have no idea what he’s saying, but this is kind of cool. You can kind of see them think about it, and when you realize that you might be the first person who’s ever done that, you’re the first person that hasn’t asked anything from them, really. Your first person that hasn’t really yelled at them. You’re the first person that gives them some reprieve from their life. There’s a lot of stories in that regard, that I did that for some elephants out in the field, and that kind of makes you feel good, also very sad.
So, Steve, have you learned anything about yourself in the care of the elephants over the years? Constantly. I’m constantly learning stuff about myself, you know, sacrificing everything to help these elephants, I guess. But no, I think you know, when I first started, this whole something stage journey early, even when I was still at the zoo. I was going to India. I don’t think I was prepared for the culture shock in Southeast Asia. The elephants is one thing, but just a culture shock in general. Like to think that people don’t have hot water or running water or lights. Didn’t occur to me. You know, that was my thirties. Never been to Southeast Asia before. So I went to see awesome elephants. So I think that I I don’t know how I would’ve prepared myself for that. Maybe if I was to go and visit, I was not going to dive right in, to help the elephants. I think I would have been a little bit better off, because now I’m kind of more mature and more understanding of what goes on out here. And it’s not so black and white. That’s kind of what I’m learning. I’m learning that I’m very confident in the skills that I possess to help elephants, I guess. It’s not much that I really can’t do to help the elephants. And the more I do, the more success we’re having. And that’s great. Absolutely.
Is this how you thought things would turn out, Steve, when you look back? Never. Every new place I go, like when I left the zoo, I thought I would just be in India, but that I had somebody reach out from Thailand and say, You ever been to Thailand and I said, No. Well, would you consider coming to Thailand? And I said, Sure when you want me to come? So I went to Thailand, and then from there, word of mouth, all the great organizations that really want me. They’re promoting me. And if you asked me if I’d be in Cambodia or Vietnam or trilaka, never and I’ve been in all those countries, so I’ll be in all those countries within these next few months here. So you never know where you’re gonna end up. But for me, everything comes from an honest place. I’m just about helping elephants. I’m not trying to be involved with the nonsense in the politics and the egos here and there. I just wanna help elephants. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.
Well, Steve, this has been really great to talk with you today. Is there anything else you want to share before we wrap things up? Not really. I mean, I have a nonprofit charity, and so I need donations in order to continue this valuable work. I’ve got Instagram and Facebook. You can check out the stuff there. I don’t share exactly everything that I do on public social media because a lot of sensitivity, things that I do. No and people can check it out it elephantcareunchained.com. Or, as you said on your Facebook and Instagram and other social medias and Steve, it’s been really interesting talking to you. And I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your story. Thanks, Chris. I appreciate it. If you guys need anything for me? If you guys need me to promote you guys, I will do that for sure. I appreciate you guys reaching out to me. Well, thanks to you for coming on to talk with us today. All right, Thanks, Chris. I appreciate it.
Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. Be sure to subscribe to your favorite podcast platform and feel free to leave us a review so we can help even more animals. Also, don’t forget to sign up with Doobert.com to join the tens of thousands of duper tears across the country and around the world helping animals and the organizations working to save them.”