A place where all the eminences are gray
IF YOU'RE OUTSIDE HOHENWALD, Tenn., and suddenly happen on a small herd of Asian elephants roaming in a grassy pasture, don't panic. It isn't the local sour mash catching up with you; the elephants are real, and they have names.
Tarra, Barbara and Jenny live in the first natural-environment elephant sanctuary in the U.S.—a 112-acre farm run by Carol Buckley and Scott Blais, where pensioned-off pachyderms can live out their lives, shielded from the world by an electric fence and steel cables and finished forever with circus trainers and zookeepers. "Our goal is to create a healthy environment for elephants," says Buckley, 42, a former zookeeper (and circus performer) herself. She started the Elephant Sanctuary, as she calls it, in March 1995 "to give them a lot of room, other elephants to be compatible with and proper food."
The cattle farm that Buckley and Blais bought for $130,000 is, it seems, ideal for Asian elephants (their African cousins eat trees and are more aggressive). Temperatures rarely dip below freezing, spring-fed ponds provide good drinking water, and bamboo, a favorite snack, grows wild.
Tarra, 22, the first resident of this elephant Eden, has been with Buckley since she was 6 months old. She had been imported from Thailand by a tire store owner who used her to promote his business, when Buckley, then attending Moorpark (Calif.) College's exotic-animal management program, was hired to help care for her. Moved by Tarra's plight—she was confined to a truck—Buckley, with a $25,000 loan cosigned by her father, bought Tarra and went on the road with her. For 13 years they appeared at amusement parks and circuses around the country. In 1988, Buckley, sensing that Tarra's performing days were nearing an end and that she needed more elephant company, moved her to a series of zoos. "As elephants mature," she says, "they don't enjoy performing as much—it was becoming work." Finally she and her friend Blais, 24, used their savings to buy the farm—and the nonprofit Elephant Sanctuary, which is supported by donations, was born.
Barbara, an emaciated and scarred 26-year-old former circus elephant, joined Tarra in April. The third elephant, Jenny, 27, came to the sanctuary last month after her owners, who run a small traveling circus, decided she was no longer able to perform. Now that word of the sanctuary is spreading, Buckley and Blais, who share a small ranch house on the property, are getting calls about other elephants in dire straits—and hope to expand their herd to at least eight animals.
Taking care of their charges is a full-time job, leaving Buckley and Blais with little leisure time—not that they want any. "I am living exactly the way I choose to," says Buckley. "We are here as their servants."
AMY ESKIND in Hohenwald
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