A Rare Visit to Elephant Heaven
By Mitch Potter
Tarra and her canine friend Bella have struck up an unusual friendship at North America's
largest elephant sanctuary, 2,700 acres in central Tennessee.
HOHENWALD, TENN.—There is the sound of trumpets in these hills. But as we rattle down gravel back roads an hour southwest of Nashville, their source proves elusive.
"You lookin' for them elephants? Good luck with that," a Tennessee state trooper says with laugh, at the crossroads of tiny Hohenwald after an hour's fruitless search.
"People hear 'em, but we never see 'em. But the place is somewhere down that way," he says, pointing. "Try Buck Holler Road, a mile or so on the left. There's gotta be a gate."
We find the unmarked gate, rigidly padlocked. And if the high chain-link fence doesn't discourage you, the sign marked "Biohazard" might.
Yet on the other side is nothing less than elephant heaven: a breathtaking expanse of 1,100 hectares of pristine mixed forest, meadows, creeks, ponds and lake that is home to more than 40 tonnes of pure personality — a mud-wallowing herd of 14 of the luckiest elephants alive. One of them, Tarra, even has her own dog.
Welcome to the award-winning Elephant Sanctuary, the continent's largest haven for weary veterans of North American circuses and zoos.
Studded with three state-of-the-art heated barns, boasting one of the world's foremost elephant vets in residence a few minutes away, the not-for-profit labour of love founded in 1995 amounts to one huge retirement playground.
Huge, as in nearly four times the size of the entire Toronto Zoo — a facility that faces a fateful call next week on the future of its three remaining elephants, Toka, Iringa and Thika. And if the Toronto Zoo's board follows a staff recommendation released Friday, the trio could soon have a new home.
As zoos the world over are realizing, when it comes to elephants, size matters. And the cramped, cold and antiquated Toronto facilities — where four elephants have died of various ailments in the past five years — need to get much, much bigger or get out of the elephant business altogether. Which many leading zoos, from New York to London, already have done.
The people here in Tennessee know about Toronto's dilemma. They make an exception to a firm no-visitors rule on this sunny spring day, allowing the Toronto Star a rare glimpse inside a potential destination for the Toronto Three.
"The whole point is to let elephants just be elephants, in the most natural environment we can provide," says co-founder Scott Blais, explaining the lack of signs. "We're just trying to help them heal and let them live out their lives in peace."
The 14 here spent most of their lives satisfying the human impulse to see them, ride them, take glee in their circus tricks. Some arrived bruised and emaciated, others with chronic foot problems, others ridden with tuberculosis. One had lived chained up 14 hours a day, never once seeing another elephant until she came to Tennessee.
Now "the girls" are family. A complex and highly social community with serious room to roam. Retirees from the business of amusing us, they're just elephants now. And the people who dreamt up this haven 16 years ago want to keep it that way. No offence. But visitors are decidedly not welcome.
But know that Blais and his colleagues have been reading over your shoulders, Toronto. They know Bob Barker — yes that Bob Barker, the retired Price Is Right host — caused a huge fuss when he stormed into the city last month, urging the Toronto Zoo to get out of its problem-plagued elephant business and let the last three residents retire south.
The Tennessee refuge is the largest such sanctuary, though there's another in California nearly as big. But Blais — a former Ontarian, who learned the careful art of elephant care during at seven-year stint at African Lion Safari in Cambridge — is all for seeing the Toronto animals relocated south, regardless of the final destination.
Barker's plea for Toronto's elephants to "come on down" was based on Canada's cold climate. Blais acknowledges there's something to that, but he views the larger issue as one of space.
"The videos I've seen of Toronto's elephants are really scary, showing two of girls are picking on the other one," said Blais.
"It's frightening because they don't have anywhere to go. Small spaces cause huge social problems. Their natural instinct is to spread out. If they can't give themselves a time-out, often the only option is to fight. Toronto is far from the only zoo facing this issue. But that's the real problem I see."
In Toronto's case, the alternative to giving up its pachyderms is a $34 million scheme for a new holding area and outdoor expansion — a daunting challenge for the cash-strapped facility.
Or Tennessee, perhaps? "Well, it just so happens that we have the room in our African barn right now. We have the capacity. It would take some adjustment because our African herd is only two right now. It's a big shift for such a small herd to add three.
"But we know how to do that, and we are absolutely open to it. The girls in Toronto are welcome here."
The Elephant Sanctuary is not simply vast. It is a multi-million-dollar operation, replete with 24 kilometres of pachyderm-proof steel-and-concrete fencing that shapes three separate enclosures — one each for the Asian and African herds, another for quarantined carriers of TB. Researchers now are coming to understand tuberculosis to be the "cancer" of the elephant world, far more common than once thought.
All this from nothing but in idea that took root in Ontario. Blais and co-founder Carol Buckley first met at African Lion Safari in the early1990s and began to hatch a scheme to find more space for the elephants that captivated them so.
Buckley, a California native, had arrived with her own female elephant, Tarra, for a turn in the Ontario animal park's breeding program. But she soon found a kindred spirit in Blais, and together they struck out on the blue-sky experiment of a refuge.
Why Tennessee? Happenstance. The two pounded the tribal drums in the rarefied world of elephant care and won interest from the Nashville Zoo, which then had ample unused space and a willingness to try something new. But when the pregnant Tarra's calf emerged stillborn after a difficult two-day labour, Nashville backed out. Suddenly they found themselves stuck in Tennessee with an elephant, an idea and no place to go.
That's when Hohenhold beckoned — climate, foliage, water, humidity and, most of all, plenty of land going dirt-cheap. They scrounged a down payment for the original 112 acres and racked up loans to build the first barn. They went to see the local vet, who knew nothing of elephants but was all ears and began researching that very day.
Those early days were touch-and-go. Friends helped them establish the Sanctuary as a non-profit, but back in 1995, donations were thin. Volunteers helped with fencing, but the task was beyond belief.
Blais recalls, as desperation set in with bills piling up, a dream-saving journey to the local post office.
"We're at the point that we need to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet. I remember sitting in the car and opening a letter — and inside is a cheque for $10,000. A huge donation! I sat there with tears running down my cheeks," he says.
The plan called for many kilometres of fencing — beyond daunting for volunteers working with manual post-hole diggers. But as locals begin helping out, the Tennessee Valley Authority stepped in, dropping off a bulldozer, a tractor with a power augur, a bush hog, a cement mixer and a welding kit.
"It was monumental. The TVA people, they're guys who've lived here all their lives. They know the terrain. They knew what we needed. And just loaned everything to us right there and then," says Blais.
"We never looked back. And now, 16 years later, it's all just a blur. Support comes through the woodwork; every year donations have increased (in 2009, the Sanctuary netted more than $5 million from some 20,000 donors worldwide). But it's not just financial — it's expertise, sweat equity, volunteer labour. We've been blessed with incredible help."
It has not all been sweetness and light. Decades of human mistreatment, particularly among circus elephants, have made the challenge of resocializing a herd an art in itself. Some arrived with a history of aggression.
The Sanctuary's darkest day came in July 2006, when Winkie, a 30-something elephant from a zoo in Madison, Wis., suddenly turned on handler Joanna Burke during a morning water patrol, knocking her over and stepping on her.
Blais was there and tried frantically to distract Winkie. He, too, was struck, suffering a broken ankle and bruising. But Burke, 36, died almost instantly. The only serious injury in 16 years of operation proved fatal.
And elephants bond, sometimes in pairs. The Sanctuary staff — now 10 full-time caregivers — are especially amazed at the odd alliance of Tarra and Bella, an elephant-dog duo who have been constant companions since finding each other seven years ago.
"Bella was a stray who wandered in one day, and for whatever reason she started following Tarra. Each day they got closer and closer," said Blais.
"And then one morning we came into the barn and Bella was sleeping in Tarra's hay — Tarra was all excited, almost whispering, her eyes lit up. Almost as if to say, 'Look who's here! Sssh. She's sleeping. Don't say anything.'
"Now, if you say, 'Bella, where is your elephant?' she goes running right next to Tarra. There might be five elephants standing, it doesn't matter. I'm not sure who adopted who, because they take turns leading the way."
Tennessee gets some winter, though not enough to impress Canadians. Radiant underfloor heating, with infrared heat lamps in backup, keep the herds here cozy for the four to six weeks that matter. Some years ago the Sanctuary experimented with homemade earmuffs fashioned from pillows. That elephants didn't much care for them. On average, the herds spend about five days each winter cooped up.
In the wild, African elephants tend to be friskier travelers, logging large distances. But they tend also to be less fond of cold than the Asians.
Minnie, on the other hand, is as outdoorsy as they come. She's an Asian who arrived at the Sanctuary after the U.S. Department of Agriculture seized her from Illinois-based Hawthorn Corp., which leases elephants to circuses.
"Minnie is going out no matter what. She's chased herds of deer. She'll actually break through the ice in the pond and jump in," said Blais.
Flora is probably the most famous. Orphaned at age 3 when poachers killed her mother for ivory, she was adopted from Africa. For 18 years she was the star of the traveling Circus Flora. But in 2001, barely a third of the way into an expected 60-plus lifespan, Flora lost interest in performing.
Her handler, David Balding, loved her like a daughter. Realizing she'd probably outlive him, he went looking for a more appropriate home. A failed bid to return her to the wild morphed into a trip to Tennessee.
Enter Flora's showbiz friends, led by Cameron Diaz, who led a fundraising campaign to ensure Flora would live happily ever after at the Sanctuary. In 2003, Hollywood got its storybook ending, chronicled in the 2010 documentary One Lucky Elephant.
But the collective bankroll that pays for it all involves much more than the deep pockets and bleeding hearts of Hollywood. Among more than 20,000 donors is a woman who recently collected and cashed in enough metal cans to donate $5,000, thus earning a spot in the Sanctuary's twice-annual VIP tour of large givers.
One of the ways the Sanctuary stanches the public desire to visit is by steering the curious to its web portal — elephants.com — where 14 "Elecams" are at your service, offering live video feeds of what Flora and friends are up to.
They've also toyed with the idea of establishing viewing platforms, but in the end decided the topography of the Tennessee site is just too varied — too many nooks, hills, and dales — to guarantee visitors a good look at a pachyderm.
"Can you find middle ground and create a scenario that will benefit elephants and allow humans to observe?" Blais wonders. "I think it's possible, but you need a more level playing field, flatter topography. Our site is just too wild, which is why we rely more on the cameras as our windows to the world."
Also new is the Sanctuary's off-site visitor centre in nearby Hohenwald, where staff and volunteers present videos and educational seminars for kids.
A few doors down, however, the paradox of such progressive protectionism in the heart of rural, gun-friendly Tennessee comes into high relief when you step inside the Lewes County Museum. There, you will find dozens of mounted trophies — including a wild range of what are now endangered species — all shot by the late Dan Maddox, a local hunting legend. Clearly, Maddox bagged his share of elephants over the course of his 50-year global hunting career, if the ivory tusks on these walls are any indication.
The lone museum clerk acknowledged "some people get pretty upset when they see the wildlife display. But it was another era. These animals weren't endangered when they died."
Blais is diplomatic about the jarring juxtaposition of live elephants here, dead tusks there. For a man who has given his everything for elephants, the awkward intersection of humanity and these majestic animals is an old story.
"I get it. It's an amazing thrill when you are a kid. To have an elephant do tricks for you is a huge ego boost. It's truly amazing," he says.
"But what's just as amazing is to just see them being elephants, wallowing in the mud, or knocking down a tree so they can eat the tender shoots on top.
"Why do they have to stand on their back legs and be chained up at night? Why can't they just be elephants?"