Inside the Elephant Sanctuary

Bunny, Jenny, and the “girls” of the Elephant Sanctuary quietly redefine the model for captive elephant care.

Elephantsanctuary
Jenny (left) and Barbara at the Elephant Sanctuary. Photo by Failure magazine.

“We never tell our girlies what to do,” says Carol Buckley about the female pachyderms in her care. Since 1995, Buckley and Scott Blais have operated the only natural habitat refuge for Asian elephants in the United States. Located in Hohenwald, Tennessee, an hour and a half southwest of Nashville, the Elephant Sanctuary provides a protected environment for sick, old or needy female Asian elephants formerly employed by zoos or circuses.

Historically, elephants have had a difficult time in captivity, but the sanctuary attempts to minimize the inherent problems by mimicking the natural herd environment as much as possible. In addition to receiving appropriate food and medical care the elephants have complete freedom of movement within the confines of the sanctuary. “We do not chain our elephants and they are not utilized commercially,” emphasizes Buckley, a no-compromises approach that remains a marked departure from traditional captive elephant management. In essence, the six elephants that currently call the sanctuary home—Tarra, Sissy, Jenny, Shirley, Bunny and Winkie—may be on the leading edge of a revolution in elephant care.

Baby Elephant Walk

Buckley’s introduction to pachyderms came in college, when she was startled one day to find a local tire dealer walking a baby elephant in front of her house. Buckley immediately volunteered to help care for the 700-pound Fluffie, and the businessman was only too happy to receive assistance. Understanding that an elephant would eventually outgrow its usefulness as a promotional gimmick, the dealer sold the fast-growing animal to Buckley, who promptly re-named her Tarra.

Ironically, when she met Tarra, Buckley, now 48, was pursuing an interest in traditional animal training, utilizing some of the very same management techniques she now disdains. She credits her experience with doing things the traditional way as a major influence. “If I hadn’t decided to go into the commercial industry of exotic animal training and management I don’t believe I would be where I am today, nor would I be as effective,” she says. “It’s that old saying, ‘been there, done that.’”

For years the unlikely pair traveled the world, with Tarra gaining fame for her ability to roller-skate and play musical instruments. Initially, Tarra seemed to enjoy being the center of attention, giving rides at zoos, performing with circuses, filming television commercials and appearing on talk shows. Buckley documents many of their adventures in the new children’s book, “Travels With Tarra,” published this month by Tilbury House. 

Meanwhile, raising Tarra from the age of six months taught Buckley a lot about elephant behavior. Eventually, Tarra tired of performing and began expressing her dissatisfaction with living in a small enclosure. Tarra’s predicament inspired Buckley to dream of creating a sanctuary for ‘retired’ captive elephants, a place that would be closed to the public where the elephants would have no responsibilities. After meeting Blais, 29, at an animal park in Canada, the two decided to pursue the dream, and after an extensive search found a large plot of suitable land in middle Tennessee. “Tarra was my mentor the entire time,” says Buckley. “If it had not been for Tarra who knows how this would have evolved?”

Born “Free”? 

Traditionally, there have been two methods for managing captive elephants. In the “free contact” system there is no protective barrier between the caretaker or trainer and the elephant. With this method the trainer is dominant, controlling everything the elephant does, including what and when it eats. “Negative reinforcement and punishment are acceptable tools in that style of management. It’s practiced in about forty-eight percent of zoos with variations on the degree of dominance,” claims Buckley.

However, the prevailing trend is towards the “protective contact” system, in which there is always a barrier between the keeper and the elephant. While Buckley views protective contact as an improvement over free contact, she notes that zoos may be moving in this direction for purely selfish reasons—namely, avoiding liability. “Elephant keeping is labeled as the most dangerous occupation in the U.S. and because of that insurance is sky-high,” says Buckley. However, she notes that keeping caretakers away from elephants has its advantages. First, the system requires using positive reinforcement instead of discipline to get the animals to respond. To put it bluntly: “If the keepers can’t get to the elephants, they can’t beat them,” says Buckley. 

To one degree or another, all the elephants now at the sanctuary have suffered from being kept in captivity, most of them spending years or even decades without any contact with other pachyderms. Some even suffered outright abuse at the hands of their keepers. 

Sissy, For Example

Sissy’s story is particularly tragic. Born of the wilds of Asia in 1962, Sissy was separated from her mother and family at age two and shipped to America. For 36 years she lived, almost always alone, at various zoos in Texas. In 1981 she suffered long-term emotional trauma after barely surviving a record flood, spending 24 hours completely submerged underwater with only the top of her trunk above the waterline. In 1986, she was shipped to a breeding zoo, but after 22 years apart from her own kind, she lacked the social skills to relate to other elephants. Then in the mid-1990s one of her keepers was killed while inside her enclosure; she was labeled a killer and removed from her home. Finally, in 1998 she was shipped to the El Paso zoo, where she was beaten by her new keepers upon arrival. When a videotape of the beating was secured by the media, the ensuing scandal led the city of El Paso to send Sissy to the Elephant Sanctuary in January of 2000. 

The sanctuary has developed its own system for caring for elephants like Sissy, one designed to optimize their physical and emotional well being. “Their biology dictates that they need to walk 30-50 miles every day,” claims Buckley, whose official title is executive director. “If elephants don’t walk 30-50 miles a day their body isn’t doing what it was designed to do and it can be a problem,” she continues. With 800 acres of land enclosed by a fence made of steel drilling pipe and surplus slack wire conductor cable obtained from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the sanctuary’s elephants have ample space to roam. 

According to Buckley, meeting an elephant’s social needs is also critical. “One elephant alone is not acceptable, two elephants are a pair and elephants don’t live in pairs. Three elephants and one is on the outs. Five begins to create the social complexity that elephants need. Ten or eleven and you are starting to get to the place where they can be socially and psychologically sound,” she says. 

Emulating natural living conditions also helps explain why the sanctuary only accepts female Asian elephants. “Because they are matriarchal by nature—they only live in female groups—that dictated that we would only have females. The reason we only have Asian elephants is because Asian and African elephants do not live together in the wild; it would not be natural for them to be together,” she says.

Asian Elephants, Living Large

Of course, it takes significant resources to keep a half dozen adult pachyderms happy and healthy. To begin with, each elephant consumes approximately 150 pounds of food per day. Despite the outsized quantities, elephants are selective eaters. In addition to grazing on a wide variety of vegetation in the sanctuary’s fields, staffers supplement the elephants’ diet with hay and a variety of fruits and vegetables. 

When we arrived at the sanctuary on a cool, crisp late April morning, the elephants were inside their heated barn being treated to a big breakfast—bales of hay and a mixture of chopped apples and carrots. According to Blais, the elephants spend little time in the barn, usually choosing to roam around outside, except when the temperature drops during the cold weather months. 

Tarra, Jenny and Sissy also seemed to approve of a basket of fresh red grapefruit—peeling away the skins with surprising speed and efficiency—before swallowing the fruit whole and tossing the skin aside. Since elephants drink gallons of water at a time, a garden hose running wide open is most effective for quenching their thirst. After Blais inserted the hose into Jenny’s mouth, she stood and drank uninterrupted for a full five minutes before letting the hose drop to the ground. 

With the elephants preoccupied with eating the staff took the opportunity to provide some routine medical care. Elephants coming over from zoos and circuses often suffer from foot rot (due to lack of exercise and standing in unhealthy conditions) and impacted or overgrown teeth (improper diet). Blais urged Jenny to place her feet in giant buckets filled with Kurtz apple cider vinegar and she was more than willing to oblige. According to Blais, the vinegar is an excellent solution for combating and/or staving off foot rot. Meanwhile, at the far end of the barn, staff member Joanna Burke tended to Bunny’s impacted tooth, cleaning away food from the affected area. “The number one killer of elephants in captivity is foot rot,” claims Buckley. “Impacted and overgrown teeth are another problem. If you deal with those two things you can reverse the disease process that will otherwise kill them,” she says. 

While several of the elephants at the sanctuary have obvious physical scars—Shirley and Jenny are hobbled by past hind leg injuries, for instance—Buckley says the mental trauma caused by years at the zoo or circus is a lot more difficult to treat than any physical problem. “Physically, these are very healthy elephants,” she says. “Psychologically, they’ve got some recovering to do.” 

After feeding, all six elephants casually meander outside, allowing staff to clean up the mess left behind in the barn—and six elephants make quite a mess. Within an hour, the floor of the barn is spotless.

If You Build It, They Will Come?

While Buckley and Blais have been very successful at bringing elephants to the sanctuary—currently there are only two female Asian elephants that now remain in a zoo alone—they are often met with significant resistance from both zoos and circuses. “They want us to take these elephants in without giving their history,” allows Buckley. “They can’t accept that what they are doing is not right. They do not believe it’s abusive and that there’s another way to do it.”

Clearly, Buckley is not looking for a fight. “My views are about captive elephant management,” she notes. “I don’t separate that out or focus on the venues where elephants live or perform. It’s the nature of the industry that manages elephants in a way that I feel is contrary to true elephant nature.” 

It’s also possible that the industry simply can’t relate to keeping elephants and not using them to generate revenue. “The idea of us having these ‘healthy’ very capable elephants of working age here doing nothing, they find that wasteful,” claims Buckley.

Make no mistake, it’s expensive to care for elephants. “Our current budget is about $400,000 a year,” says Buckley. “If you just talk food and medical care, maybe $1,000-$1,500 a month [per elephant], depending on the individual.” 

The Elephant Sanctuary derives most of its revenue from corporate and individual contributors, many of whom donate money via the sanctuary’s Web site, elephants.com. “You can donate for general use, or for ‘Acres for Elephants’ or to feed an elephant for a day,” says Buckley. The sanctuary also raises money by selling branded merchandise—T-shirts, videos, baseball caps, prints and pins—via the Web site. 

Are You Experienced?

According to Buckley, the sanctuary attracts enough media attention that raising money hasn’t been as challenging as finding staff to work with the ‘girls.’ The ideal candidate has no experience working with elephants but a sincere appreciation for animals. “We need somebody who reveres them and sees the big picture and knows why we’re doing this and will not compromise the elephants. That’s rigid, but those people who can and do thrive working in zoos are people who are flexible enough to compromise the elephants,” she says. 

Blais, who began working with elephants at the age of 15 and serves as facilities director, says that it’s difficult to find people with the right temperament that are willing to make a long-term commitment to the sanctuary. “When we started, I thought I was committed to it,” says Blais. “I thought it was what I was going to be doing for the duration of my life. And now there’s no doubt.” 

More Acres For Elephants

While the sanctuary is looking for prospective staffers, it’s also looking to expand in physical size. Last month the sanctuary purchased an additional 725 nearby acres, including a 25-acre lake in which the elephants will be able to frolic. “The goal of the expansion is more room to roam,” says Buckley. But she contends that additional space will have some other benefits, too. “With more room to roam comes the opportunity for many more elephants, and the chance to experiment with some powerful non-invasive research projects,” she continues. 

However, Buckley and Blais’ future plans go beyond the boundaries of the sanctuary. Both were instrumental in starting a new organization called The Alliance For Elephants, a group of people from the elephant industry looking to create an alternative to the Elephant Managers Association (EMA)—an international organization of elephant handlers and administrators. “Because the EMA is moving more and more towards embracing traditional elephant management we felt the industry needed another voice,” says Buckley.

Other goals include preserving land for elephants in the wild and creating a sister refuge strictly for African elephants. “In general, elephants have a very grim outlook,” notes Blais, “whether it be in captivity or the wild.” But he maintains that even touching the lives of a few elephants is a rewarding experience: “To be a part of what goes on here, to see where the elephants come from and what they end up doing, it’s the greatest gift I could ever have.”