Pachyderm and Pooch a Special Pair of Friends
STLToday.com (St. Louis Post Dispatch)
Tarra always liked dogs. When a dog named Bella expressed a desire to bond, Tarra reciprocated by petting her -- with her trunk. Tarra happens to be an Asian elephant who lives at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. The pachyderm's best friend is a Chow-mix.
"Elephants are social and so are dogs. Who are we to decide who should be best friends?" says Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's executive director.
Indeed, Tarra and Bella's bond illustrates the kind of intense and unconditional emotional attachment legendary in both elephants and dogs.
Eighteen African and Asian elephants live at the 2,700-acre sanctuary, along with 21 stray dogs and 18 cats. The facility is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants. The non-profit is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The sanctuary is designed for old, sick and needy elephants retired from zoos and circuses.
Cats and dogs are free to roam the property but most keep their distance from the pachyderms. And who can blame them? The elephants agree, Buckley says, that they generally find the barking dogs pesky.
That's decidedly not the case with Tarra and Bella. Staff noticed how tight the two had become, spending days together roaming the sanctuary. At night, they slept side-by-side, often with Tarra's foot touching Bella. Imagine cozying up to an 8-foot-tall, 8,700-pound pachyderm who seems to have a need to pet dogs pretty much identical to a human's!
Calling this odd couple best friends may still have been a stretch -- at least for outsiders to fathom -- until the day Bella was discovered lying motionless in a field. Elephants can be pretty protective of their friends, but Buckley says Tarra seemed almost relieved when a staff member carried the dog away for veterinary care. It turned out the dog had injured her spine jumping or simply twisted the wrong way. It took her three weeks to recover at the sanctuary office.
Each day, Tarra stood vigil just outside the office. With all that space to roam, this elephant wasn't going anywhere; she simply wanted to see her best friend. When Bella was well enough, she was brought outside. Tarra reached out to her with her trunk, likely reassuring herself and Bella. Every day, a staff member would bring the dog to the anxiously waiting elephant. Finally, one day, Bella was well enough to wander freely with her pal once again. Off they went, Tarra zig-zagging under the elephant's legs and barking. Tarra trumpeted.
Just as cats and dogs who live together seem to learn each other's verbal and non-verbal cues, Buckley suspects this pair have done the same. Sometimes, Bella even seems to feel she needs to protect her friend -- although no one's sure from what -- and will "defend" Tarra from strangers.
Knowing the back story helps explain why this Felix and Oscar have paired up.
Tarra, now 35, changed Carol Buckley's life. The elephant was only about a year old and living in the back of a truck in Southern California as a living, breathing exhibit for a tire store. Eventually, Buckley talked the owner into letting her bring Tarra home with her. Now, at least, the elephant had a half-acre to roam. In 1976, determined to give Tarra a better life, Buckley bought her for $25,000. After 15 years on the road, appearing in various circuses, the team began to work advising zoos on keeping elephants and doing what's best for them. Development of The Elephant Sanctuary began in 1995 as an extension of what Buckley is sure is best for captive elephants in need.
From the time Tarra was very young she was exposed to dogs because Buckley always had pet dogs.
Bella's story began like that of many dogs at The Elephant Sanctuary. She was found on the property as a stray in 2004, 'guarding' large construction equipment workers had been using. Clearly, for reasons no one will ever understand, Bella likes large objects.
"This all now begins to at least make some sense when you analyze it," say Buckley. "Tarra is still relatively young (for an elephant) and is very active. Some of the elephants (at the sanctuary) can't keep up with her. But maybe it's not best to analyze what they have, but instead to honor it. There really doesn't need to be an explanation."
Instead of eating the hay at the barn, Tarra lets her friend Bella use it as a bed. Other elephants are likely chagrined at this sad state of affairs.
Unfortunately, at some point Tarra will feel what we all do when our pets pass away. And clearly, she'll feel the loss. For those who don't believe animals have souls or feelings - consider the choices these two have made.