Bunny - A Success Story
2009-05-07

Courier Press
Evansville, Indiana
May 7, 2009

By Rich Davis

Ten years ago, under a postcard-blue September sky, I stood outside a million-dollar barn and watched Bunny the 8,000-pound pachyderm become part of The Elephant Sanctuary in tiny Hohenwald, Tenn., southwest of Nashville.

The other Asian elephants had already entered the pasture, Barbara the matriarch lying in the sun in a far field, Tarra roaming a fence line and Jenny and Shirley — best buds, I learned — waiting for the new kid from Evansville to join in.

For an hour, Bunny stood at the barn door, occasionally looking out.

Finally, having dumped a pile of hay on her back, sort of like a traveling lunch pail, Bunny suddenly ambled down the hill and into a whole new world.

A world of purple thistle blooms and a creek shaded by willow and oak trees, without chains and commands, where she could freely roam 2,200 acres.

Reporters are supposed to be impartial observers (Bunny’s move from her outdated concrete pad at Evansville’s zoo wasn’t without controversy), but that morning my heart sang as Bunny began to merrily trumpet.

She was part of the founding herd, and some of the Evansville zookeepers and officials who made the 5-hour drive were in tears, of joy.

“She was a success story,” Carol Buckley, cofounder of the nonprofit sanctuary, said tenderly on Thursday as she described how Bunny is going through the dying process. “I’m still in denial.”

Bunny, she explained, is doing what elephants in the wild do when they realize it's time to go, to succumb to old age. Since last Saturday, Bunny's been lying on her side in a narrow valley next to a brook, at the bottom of a h ill three miles from her fancy, high-tech barn.

Shirley and Tarra are keeping a vigil and won’t leave her side even after she passes, which could be a matter of hours or days.

The law requires a burial within three days, said Buckley, so Bunny’s final resting place will be atop the nearby hill, an area she adored.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Buckley. “It’s like losing a family member, but we’re happy she had a full life, isn’t dying from some horrible, disease (an infection of the bones, for instance) you can get in captivity.

“She had one decade of freedom, but that’s better than 90 percent of the elephants in captivity who don’t get one year.”

Tests indicate Bunny’s body is shutting down; veterinarians are giving her fluids and caring for her.

At 57, Bunny didn’t survive as long as similar elephants who grow up in the wild (60 to 70 years), but Buckley said Bunny has lived longer than Asian elephants in captivity whose average life span is 40.

Buckley is convinced the Evansville Parks Board’s decision in 1999 to send Bunny packing to Tennessee prolonged her life.

Part of Buckley’s goal when she and partner Scott Blais founded the sanctuary in 1995 “was to rescue all the elephants living alone in zoos.”

“I will never forget the effort it took to get Bunny here,” Buckley recalled, noting she lobbied for five years before Evansville officials gave the OK.

“Bunny was loved by everybody in Evansville,” said Buckley, “from those who loved her enough to let her go to others who couldn’t let her go, but still loved her.”

Buckley said Bunny’s calm but playful personality will be missed.

When Jenny died, Shirley was devastated, but Bunny stayed with her friend, coaxing Shirley back to normalcy, Buckley recalled.

However, she said Bunny’s lasting legacy was evident the moment she stepped out of the barn on that September morning:

“That lady was determined never to go back in. She liked to be outdoors more than anything. Because of her, the other elephants started sleeping outside at night, too.”

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