Bunny ~ A Success Story

Four years after packing her trunk for Tennessee,
Bunny is 'thriving' at the growing Elephant Sanctuary

by Rich Davis / Courier & Press staff writer

January 11, 2004
In November, when a winter freeze descended on the hilly pastures, woods and streams, Carol Buckley and an assistant bundled up and went out to talk to Bunny, the former Evansville elephant.

It was time to come in out of the cold at the Elephant Sanctuary, which sprawls across hundreds of acres outside tiny Hohenwald, Tenn., about 65 miles southwest of Nashville.

"Bunny's our outdoor girl," chuckled Buckley, the sanctuary cofounder, sounding like a mother. Except her 52-year-old child weighs 8,000 pounds and won't get in trouble if she slings mud or wanders a mile from home under a sky full of stars.

"It took Bunny about 10 minutes to think about it," Buckley said during a phone interview, "but Bunny turned around with a pleasant look on her face and went right in to the barn.

According to Buckley, every elephant has its own personality and Bunny, for whatever reason, is usually the last to return to the heated barn. "She never stayed outside at night when she was at the zoo (in Evansville), so maybe she feels that's something she missed out on," Buckley mused. "She was born in Burma, born to be in colder temperatures."

Bunny frequently roams with several other elephants, "but if Bunny wants to go over the hill and the others don't, it's 'See ya later,'" Buckley said. "She's incredibly active."

As Buckley spoke, an elephant could be heard trumpeting.

"That's Bunny," said Buckley, who established the nonprofit refuge in 1995 with Scott Blais to provide a retirement option for old, sick and needy elephants, most of them from zoos or circuses.

"Bunny's a joy. She'll start a trumpeting contest with the other elephants - and it's no contest. She trumpets the loudest."

Buckley said Bunny's relationship with Jenny, Shirley and Tarra has deepened. "And now she has a comfortable relationship with Sissy and Winky," the latter an assertive elephant who used to frighten Bunny.

"It's taken a lot of time and orchestrated interactions. The elephants have worked hard to bring everybody together. Today, Bunny will approach Winky."

Bunny's move to Hohenwald four years ago was controversial. City and zoo officials wanted the huge land animal to live with other elephants in a natural habitat free of chains and commands; critics feared she might not survive the nearly five-hour drive from a zoo cell that had been her home since the 1950s.

Buckley said Bunny "is thriving. Her health is great. Her feet (which suffered from years of being on concrete) are fine. She's a good eater. ... She's lost some weight. You can see her spine, but she still has that Bunny hay belly."

When Bunny arrived at the sanctuary on Sept. 30, 1999, she was one of five female Asian elephants. Today, the sanctuary has eight, including Tina, who made a 3-day journey to the sanctuary from the Greater Vancouver Zoo in August, and Delhi, an ailing 57-year-old circus pachyderm.

Delhi arrived Nov. 23 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture seized her from Illinois-based Hawthorn Corp., which leases elephants to circuses.

Delhi has osteomyelitis, a debilitating foot disease. The USDA, in citing Hawthorn for violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act, claimed she was receiving inadequate care and that her life was in danger.

Buckley said Delhi (in quarantine for six months) is being treated. So far, the infection has been stopped. It's estimated her care over the next six months will cost $80,000. Tina also has osteomyelitis, but it's in remission.

Delhi wasn't as lucky as Bunny, said Buckley, who compliments the Evansville zoo staff for successfully treating Bunny's foot problem "for 22 years."

The sanctuary tries to duplicate the wild, one reason it has only female elephants. In the wild, female Asian elephants live in herds separate from the males.

Buckley refers to the elephants as "our girls."

It's a family that's growing as the sanctuary embarks on a $6 million expansion that will exceed 2,000 acres and divide the preserve into two separate habitats.

This month the sanctuary is getting its first African elephants: Tange, Zula and Flora.

To house them - Asian and African elephants have different languages, behaviors and dietary needs - a separate African barn is being completed. There will be a common corral where the Asian and African elephants can see and touch one another but not be together.

Flora is a celebrity. Actress Cameron Diaz became a fan of the elephant, who has been temporarily boarding at the Miami Metro Zoo, and helped lead a "free Flora" campaign to raise money to move the elephant to Tennessee.

Flora, orphaned by poachers at a young age, was the star of a small circus for 18 years. She was like a 9,000-pound puppy to her owner, Ivor David Balding, but eventually he realized Flora needed the company of other elephants.

Hollywood celebrities and others have been raising more than $200,000 toward the African barn and to provide an endowment for Flora, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

"We've never had an elephant who came with an endowment," said Buckley.

The two other African elephants, Tange and Zula, spent their entire lives at Chehaw Wild Animal Park in Albany, Ga., and are being retired after thirty years. The animal park's director, Glenn Doborgosz, says, "They deserve to live out their remaining years in the very best captive environment possible."

Buckley said the sanctuary's operating budget for the eight elephants has been about $600,000 a year, much of it generated by public support and 20,000 sanctuary members across North America. The sanctuary goal is to one day be home to 100 elephants.

The next project will be a second Asian elephant barn, plus "warming huts" that are sort of like halfway houses - enclosures for elephants who don't want to return to the main barn while out exploring and grazing.

Buckley describes elephants as intelligent, socially complex animals that in captivity often are starved for an emotional connection and mental stimulation. The sanctuary allows them to be elephants, to interact with one another and follow a migratory nature. They walk three to 15 miles a day at the sanctuary.

Besides barn feedings, a couple of caregivers routinely head into the habitat with a "meals on wheels" program to provide grain, dietary supplements, produce and even foot soaks or trims.

The sanctuary is not open to the public. However, an education center is planned that would let people on a limited basis view the elephants and the habitat through cameras strategically placed around the preserve.

Buckley was a California college student studying exotic animal care in the 1970s when she looked up one day and saw a baby elephant, Tarra, walking past her house. A local tire dealer had bought the tiny elephant as a promotion gimmick for his store.

Buckley volunteered to help train Tarra and wound up buying her. For 20 years they were together at circuses, zoos and elsewhere, but Buckley's dream was to have a place "where elephants could just be elephants."

Buckley said volunteers who come to the sanctuary are disappointed they can't be with the elephants. But she said the experience still has a profound impact on them: "They realize it's not about viewing the elephants but seeing what we're doing for elephants."

To learn more about the Sanctuary, you can visit www.elephants.com online or call (931) 796-6500.

A follow-up letter to the editor of the Evansville Courier Press from a devoted Bunny fan follows:

Evansville Courier Press
Bunny is enjoying retirement
January 17, 2004

To the editor:

I'm writing to thank the Evansville Courier & Press for the excellent article Sunday about Bunny and her stay at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. I am also writing to thank the people of the Evansville area for their love and generosity to Bunny over the years - first in the excellent care and attention she received at Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden and then in their unselfishness in giving Bunny a wonderful retirement.

I am one of Bunny's biggest fans. I follow Bunny's life and watch Bunny often on the Elephant Sanctuary's live Web camera, the "Elecam." Saturday, as the sun was setting over the cold hills of Tennessee, I watched on the Elecam as Bunny approached the barn from a close meadow and entered. As always - the last elephant in. Then Bunny performed an exquisitely gentle turn-around in which she backed against her closest elephant sister. Immediately, Bunny and her sister touched trunks. Then Bunny moved on to an evening meal of elephant delectables set out especially for her.

I'd like to invite all of your readers who have not already discovered the Elephant Sanctuary's terrific Web site to join enthusiastic elephant fans at www.elephants.com. Bunny's early diary entries that document her joyful introduction to the Elephant Sanctuary are available at Bunny's biography site. Bunny's interactions with the new elephant, Tina, are part of Tina's ongoing diary, and the "Ele-Diary" documents all the elephants' progress. Bunny is very photogenic—just visit her journals.

As your article mentioned, The Elephant Sanctuary cares for an increasing number of elephants through the contribution of private donations. The Elephant Sanctuary Web site gives a good overview of the expenses involved in caring for the animals. Food alone costs about $1,000 a month. Some of the elephants such as Delhi, placed at the Sanctuary by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after she was confiscated from her former owner, need medical attention and lots of care.

I'd like to encourage the people of Evansville to continue their kindness to Bunny and all the elephants by contributing to The Elephant Sanctuary.

Contact the sanctuary by mail at The Elephant Sanctuary, P.O. Box 393, Hohenwald, Tenn. 38462; telephone at (931) 796-6500; fax at (931) 796-4810; or email elephant@elephants.com.

Again, many thanks to the people of Evansville and Mesker Park Zoo for the decision that freed Bunny to a place where she will spend the remainder of her life roaming free with other elephants. Come and join other Elephant Sanctuary fans!

Jane Hardin
McKenzie, Tennessee