A spa day is the perfect way to celebrate a birthday and I arranged an indulgent encounter for a friend at one of the most unique spots in Florida, opens in a new windowMyakka Elephant Ranch. Located in East Manatee County, the spa treatment does not coddle humans but pampers pretty pachyderms. Best of all, you get to help!
A friend’s birthday falls on Christmas and her husband typically works every other holiday, so I try to make her day extra special. We’ve been friends since freshman year of college when she volunteered to drive me home one weekend, dirty laundry and all. Both growing up in Western New York, we followed different paths down to Florida’s Gulf coast and live about 90 minutes apart.
Because COVID threw a monkey wrench in everyone’s lives, I wanted to make sure she had an extra special day. She loves elephants so whatever we did, it needed to involve them. We’re both members of opens in a new windowZooTampa at Lowry Park and mulled the idea of a day at the zoo with some animal encounters. But then, another friend posted about Myakka Elephant Rach, a non-profit conservation center for elephants. After researching the encounter options, I had a feeling my friend would want to visit the ranch, at least I secretly hoped she would.
The Sunday before Christmas, we chose the middle option, the Elephant Spa Encounter. It was more than I anticipated. Writing about this once-in-a-lifetime experience gives me goosebumps!
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates elephant management and mandates the mammals are bathed daily. As explained during the encounter, elephants need water to moisturize and hydrate their skin. Two pachyderms received spa treatments with non-toxic soap called Safari Wash, made in Missouri. First up was Lou, the 37-year-old matriarch African elephant (tusks!), followed by Carol, a 47-year-old Asian elephant. Each elephant was sprayed down with water, followed by soap, then scrubbed down, rinsed off, and treated to pedicures with mineral oil.
Everyone in attendance had an opportunity to participate in the experience and everyone had a chance to scrub at least one of the elephants.
Following the spa encounter, Lou Barreda, President and Founder of the facility, and his father Jorge Barreda, discussed the different between African and Asian elephants, the issues facing elephants around the globe, and the facility’s conservation efforts. They also patiently answered questions from attendees.
By the way, Lou’s father had Lou the elephant before he was born. Lou grew up with the tusker and is named after his grandfather, not the elephant.
Interactions with Elephants
Afterwards, we had photo sessions with Lou (the elephant) and Carol. Patty, another 47-year-old Asian elephant, made an appearance. During these sessions, we petted Lou, including her gorgeous tusks, and I hugged her trunk! Standing next to a creature weighing about 9,000 lbs. is a bit intimidating but it was a calming, gentle experience.
What’s an elephant feel like? Almost like a bumpy pig. The skin is thick, not so smooth, and sparingly sprinkled with coarse fur.
There are about 300 elephants in the United States and their importation has ended. They are an older group and I believe five were born in captivity in the U.S. in 2020. From what I’ve found online, and numbers vary, about 55 – 100 elephants are poached daily in Africa for their ivory. On a positive note, more than 140 elephants were born in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park this year. (Source: opens in a new windowThe South African)
The Myakka Elephant Ranch is raising funds to expand their facility including building a pool. They also raise funds for conservation organizations in Africa.
I realize there’s a belief system animals should not be captive or interact with humans, and should roam free. The three elephants here only know a captive world. Lou was a performance animal and attended events like birthday parties and used in film shoots. She retired seven years ago from the entertainment world. The other two no longer perform.
They are cared for, loved, and roam on acres of land. The only time they’re inside is during the encounters which may be twice daily. Through these encounters, visitors will visually and emotionally connect, and understand the threatening issues elephants face, like poaching, habitat loss, and diminishing resources. Hopefully, this translates to many supporting the ranch’s global conservation efforts to preserve the species.
The Myakka Elephant Ranch is a magical experience, one I’ll never forget (no pun intended!) They offer three different encounters fitting everyone’s budget ($29 – $179). They also sell gift certificates.
Nuts & Bolts About Myakka Elephant Ranch
The non-profit, elephant conservation center is located in East Manatee County and an easy day trip from Tampa Bay, Orlando, and Sarasota. Visiting is by reservation only. After securing your book, you’ll receive the ranch address. The ranch is basic and includes a gift shop, photo opp area, and porta-potty as a bathroom.
Visit opens in a new windowwww.myakkaelephantranch.org to learn more or call (941) 702-0220.