Inside the Elephant Sanctuary

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

Inside the Elephant Sanctuary

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?”

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