Elephant Sanctuary's New CEO Optimistic About Haven's Future

HOHENWALD, Tenn. — Dulary and Misty were in a playful mood, diving under the water in a pond on The Elephant Sanctuary’s lush 2,700 acres.

The pachyderms frolicked, but the mood of the people that founded this facility has not been as upbeat in recent months. A lawsuit between one of the sanctuary’s founders and its board of directors has dominated local headlines about the popular nonprofit.

The sanctuary’s new CEO Rob Atkinson, who moved from England to Hohenwald, said despite the courtroom rancor, he intends to honor the original mission of the Elephant Sanctuary — giving these animals room to live and roam.

"We want them to have space and freedom," he said. "We want the sanctuary to be even better. We want people to understand we will champion the vision intended for the sanctuary."

A visit from The Tennessean last week marked one of the first media visits at the facility since the lawsuit was filed in October.

Atkinson, former head of wildlife for the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was named chief executive officer in September. Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley filed her lawsuit in October.

Atkinson is approachable, measuring his words in light of the lawsuit.

"It's a wonderful place, a beacon of hope for those captive elephants," he said. "We are being strategic in how the sanctuary will be used for decades to come. This will be a center for excellence."
Growing pains

The sanctuary has gone through growing pains in the past year. Buckley, a popular figure among the sanctuary’s supporters, is suing the organization. Friction between her and the board of directors is chronicled in the lawsuit. A former employee has also filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Buckley claims unethical transactions led to her dismissal. She blames the administration for a 2009 tuberculosis outbreak among sanctuary workers.

The sanctuary has fired back with a counterclaim that Buckley created a hostile working environment, with mistreatment of workers. It also alleges that she failed to implement infection control measures, which the sanctuary and regulators agreed to, that preceded several elephant caregivers' testing positive for tuberculosis.

The board brought in Atkinson, who previously worked at Woburn Safari Park and carried out university-based research in the United Kingdom and Africa. He completed his Ph.D. in zoology at Oxford University. An author, Atkinson also served as scientific adviser to the international Coalition of Captive Elephant Well-Being.

Still, amid the turmoil of the lawsuits, supporters wondered whether the sanctuary would continue to get backing from donors — possibly necessitating a change in the policy against opening its doors to the public.

Other than in the educational gallery in downtown Hohenwald or on the sanctuary’s website, Atkinson said, that won’t happen

"It's like people who want to save the whales," he said. "People care deeply about saving these whales, but a vast majority of these people don't come in contact with whales. It’s the same premise."

It was what Scott Blais had in mind for the animals in 1995 when he and Buckley co-founded the sanctuary — having elephants enjoy the habitat in peace, not in public view.

"How can you not be happy with the way the sanctuary has evolved?" Blais asked. "I am happy with the progress and there is still much to be done. We have to protect wild spaces; if not,elephants don’t have a chance."

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