Wilstem Ranch: How to Bathe an Elephant

Bathing an elephant is a lot like washing a car—but a lot more fun. Rinse with a hose. Spray on shampoo. Scrub with a long-handled brush. Rise again. You can help bathe an elephant when you make a Spa Appointment at the Elephant Retreat at Wilstem Ranch near French Lick, Indiana.

An elephant retreat in the Midwest? That was my first thought when I learned about Wilstem Ranch’s new undertaking. 2016 is the second year of the Elephant Retreat, and both the people and the elephants love it. Everyone who signs up for a Spa Appointment gets to participate in bathing the elephants, even young children.

Scrubbing an elephant at Wilstem Ranch

The Elephants at Wilstem Ranch

Co-owner of Wilstem Ranch, Jerry Fuhs, spent eight years working on the project. His goal was to have a place for the elephants most of the year where they are engaged with people but also have their private time. Jerry said if you just turn them out onto the sanctuaries, “they get bored to death.” The three female elephants at Wilstem Ranch—Makia, Lovey and Lou—love people and their twice-a-day baths. They eagerly come down to the barn at bath time.

The elephants stay at Wilstem Ranch eight months out of the year. Because they can’t be in weather colder than about 40 degrees, they spend the winter months in Florida.

The Elephants’ History

Makia, Lovey and Lou are rescue elephants from the Kruger National Park in South Africa. They were orphaned when the government culled their mothers. When the vegetation level was too low in the park to feed the elephant population, the government would kill off some of the elephants rather than let than starve. The three orphan elephants were shipped to the United States. Today they are 42, 32, and 31 years old.

What to Expect on Your Spa Appointment

After checking in at the office, you’ll hop aboard a bus that will take you to the barn for the two-hour spa time and educational seminar. Wilstem Ranch staff lead the elephants into the barn one at a time for their baths. Visitors take turns performing one of the tasks:  scrubbing, rinsing or painting the toenails. If you prefer one task over another, let the staff know, and they will try to accommodate you. Toenail painting is usually reserved for young children, since they are too short to reach the top of the elephant with the brush.

Rinsing an elephant at Wilstem Ranch

Polishing elephant toenails at Wilstem Ranch

Why Paint the Toenails? The front toenails are painted with mineral oil because the elephants are diggers. Fuhs told me the elephants plow up dirt with their tusks and then dig with their front feet. Digging is natural for elephants. In the dry climates they dig for a water source, then extract water with their trunks.

Educational Seminar

Wilstem Ranch staff holds an educational seminar immediately following bath time. During the hour-long educational session, you learn a lot about elephants in general and the difference between an African and Asian elephant.

Some fun facts about elephants:

  • Elephants don’t sweat. They stay cool with mud, hay, or water on their back to protect them from the hot sun.
  • The wrinkles on an African elephant break up the sun rays and keep the elephant cooler.
  • Elephants grow four to six sets of teeth over a lifetime. In the wild, once they lose their last set of teeth, they often starve to death.
  • The tusks grow in at about age two.
  • An elephant continues to grow throughout its lifetime.
Elephant tooth
Elephants grow four to six sets of teeth throughout their lifetime.

During the educational seminar, elephants demonstrate how they breath by playing a harmonica. They also demonstrate how the two “fingers” at the end of their trunks are used to pick up items by picking an apple up from an audience member’s hand.

Elephant playing harmonica at Wilstem Ranch

Feeding an elephant an apple

After a question and answer session, you can visit with the elephants, take your picture with them and then watch as they move back outdoors.

Elephant at Wilstem Ranch

Elephant at Wilstem Ranch - 2

If you visit the Wilstem Ranch Elephant Retreat

The Educational Seminar is included in the Spa Appointment fee, or you can choose to attend only the Educational Seminar. Advance reservations are required for Spa Appointments and recommended for  the Educational Seminar.

The elephants are at Wilstem Ranch from approximately the beginning of March through the beginning of November.

Wilstem Ranch is located off of Indiana State Route 56 midway between French Lick and Paoli. Check the website for further details about the Elephant Spa and other activities at Wilstem Ranch.

Accommodations: My accommodations during my visit to French Lick was at the French Lick Springs Hotel. Find the best French Lick area hotel deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor

Wilstem Ranch Elephant Retreat


Disclosures: Visit French Lick West Baden hosted my visit to the area. However, any opinions expressed in this article are my own.
This article contains an affiliate link. If you book a room through the TripAdvisor link above, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

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7 thoughts on “Wilstem Ranch: How to Bathe an Elephant

  • November 19, 2016 at 12:12 am

    Wow. I didn’t know this type of thing existed outside of Africa & Asia. What a great experience. I love seeing elephants being treated with love & respect rather than mistreated in so many tourist attractions.

    • November 19, 2016 at 7:41 am

      I understand, Therese, that Wilstem Ranch offers the only experience like this in the United States.

  • November 21, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Adore this – the experience, the elephants and their insightful benefactor. Thanks for sharing a positve elephant story. These certainly have found a peaceful and adoring home.

    • November 22, 2016 at 7:36 am

      Yes, they certainly have found a great home, Elaine, where they can live out their lives peacefully.

  • November 22, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I have never seen such a thing! What a wonderful experience! You read so much about negative animal experiences, what a lovely positive one!!

    • December 3, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      A wonderful experience, indeed, Natalie. Talking with the folks at Wilstem Ranch, you can tell how much they care for the welfare of the elephants.


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