Hangin' In Hohenwald: The Elephant at Home

Hangin' in Hohenwald: The Elephant at Home

Nfocus Magazine
By: Christine Kreyling, Photos by Susan Adcock

For Dulary, Misty and Tarra, it was just another day in the ‘hood. When I dropped by, Dulary was tossing hay onto her back—for sunscreen and insect control—and munching chunks of watermelon, a midday snack. Misty was harder to spot, looking like a giant boulder as she lay snoozing in the shade cast by a canopy of pines. Tarra, the social butterfly of the group, quickly abandoned fruit for face time and hurried over to the fence to check out the company.

This trio of Asian elephants—middle-aged ladies at 48, 47 and 37 respectively—are lucky residents of the pachyderm assisted-living facility better known as the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN. Established in 1995 on 220 acres as the country’s first—and still largest—natural habitat refuge for old, sick and needy elephants, the Sanctuary has grown to 2,700 acres. It currently houses 14 Asian and African elephants, many bearing the physical and mental scars of living in zoos and performing in circuses: post-traumatic stress disorder, tuberculosis, bad joints and feet from standing on hard surfaces. At the Sanctuary, elephants spend their days roaming the grounds in tranquil retirement.

For the humans associated with the Sanctuary, however, 2010 was a year of turmoil. The institution hit the headlines in March of 2010 when the board fired Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley; insiders say the threat of staff defections due to her demanding management style was one cause. Buckley responded last October by filing a lawsuit seeking $.5 million in damages and restoration as president.

In December, British wildlife expert Rob Atkinson arrived to take over as CEO and the Sanctuary board exhaled a deep breath.

Atkinson, who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University, has decades of experience with elephants. He says that when he began working at the London Zoo in 1982, “I didn’t question the idea of captivity for elephants." Then he heard that an elephant named Dilberta, whom he’d known at the zoo as “a sweet little thing," had died “of arthritis and aggression. How can you die of aggression?" She was 26. Given that the elephant lifespan is naturally as long as that of humans, Atkinson began to have doubts.

During a stint at England’s Woburn Safari Park in the 1990s, Atkinson says, “I realized that with all other species in captivity, positive reinforcement is used, if the animals are trained at all. Elephants are the one species, across the world, whose keeping in captivity is based on dominance, on dreadful things like chains and anchors, hot shocks and prods. And I knew it was wrong."

Atkinson migrated to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and initiated a study of elephants in captivity. He didn’t like what the scientists found. He began to publicly criticize the way captive elephants were treated.

Then Atkinson heard about a place that gave elephants space and freedom, and didn’t use tools of dominance. "I first visited the Elephant Sanctuary in 2002," he says. "It was an inspiration." When he discovered that the head job at the Sanctuary was open, he seized the moment. "It was an opportunity to stop criticizing and move forward," Atkinson explains, "to show how things could, and should, be done."

As far as Buckley’s lawsuit is concerned, Atkinson says that in February the Sanctuary filed a response to all Buckley’s legal points. "And that’s where it is right now," he explains. "We’ve received no formal response" from Buckley "and no hearing has been set."

What board chair Janice Zeitlin characterizes as the "difficult period" hasn’t had a negative impact on the Sanctuary’s fundraising. "Donations in 2010 were up over the previous year and 2011 looks strong as well," she says. "Through it all, our focus has been on the elephants and on raising the money to meet their needs. They’re the whole point, after all."

The one issue that’s upset the most observers of the controversy, as Atkinson freely admits, is the Sanctuary board’s decision not to allow Buckley to visit Tarra. Buckley raised the elephant from a baby, trained her to roller skate and then performed with her in circuses and on TV. When Buckley decided that Tarra had had enough of stage life, the elephant became the first resident of the Sanctuary that Buckley founded with elephant care expert Scott Blais.

In defending the board’s decision, Atkinson points out that Buckley herself forbade the owner of Flora to visit her after the African arrived at the Sanctuary in 2004. "And I think Carol made the right judgment," he says. "It’s hard to sort out elephant feelings as opposed to human feelings." He notes that elephants have long memories, and questions whether it’s wise to revive those featuring humans. "The purpose of the Sanctuary is to enable the elephants to withdraw from their old lives in captivity and become elephants again. So it’s safest not to allow visitation, even though it’s hard on the owners."

Atkinson explains that the role of humans at the Sanctuary is one of minimally intrusive caregivers, not pachyderm pals. "Elephants in the wild have their own matriarchal social structure," he says. "That’s what we encourage here. The elephants run their own lives."

While the elephants are running their lives, Atkinson and Zeitlin are pushing ahead with plans for an education gallery to complement the Sanctuary welcome center and gift shop. The location is a pair of restored buildings in downtown Hohenwald that the city once slated for demolition. The gallery will feature exhibits on the nature of elephants and their highly complex social needs, their plight in captivity, the history of the Sanctuary, the individual stories of its elephants and footage of them in action, as well as special educational programs.

Atkinson expects the education gallery "to ameliorate the disappointment the public may feel in not being able to observe the elephants directly." He says he’d "like for people to be able to see our elephants if it wouldn’t affect them," but can’t guarantee that. He also understands that "we can’t cut people off completely from the animals and expect them to care about them. With the education gallery we can introduce the public to our elephants in a controlled and constructive way."

One key role Atkinson sees for the Sanctuary concerns the problem of tuberculosis, which he says threatens 15 percent of captive elephants in the U.S. And because elephants carry the human form of TB—veterinary scientists think the animals originally contracted it from a human source—the disease is also a threat to the people who are exposed to carrier animals in zoos and circuses.

Atkinson says organizations with elephants who’ve tested positive for TB "need to give them to us. We have the facilities to care for them. Our next big goal is to improve those facilities and find the best way to treat the disease." The Sanctuary has a quarantine barn with six stalls and separate grounds for TB carriers, as well as a resident vet, Dr. Susan Mikota, who’s the leading authority on the disease in elephants.

Atkinson says, however, that his "deepest wish is for the Sanctuary to get people to focus, not just on our beloved elephants, but also on our beloved planet. We have to get things right with the animals and plants with which we share this planet, or we’re heading for disaster."

Atkinson thinks elephants have the potential to get people to focus on how interdependent humans and animals are because "we share so many things with them." He points to studies that show elephants are capable of self-recognition say, in a mirror, like apes and dolphins. Elephants can distinguish voices, "discriminating among the calls of 200 other elephants." They feel anger and can wait for revenge. "Elephants have a concept of death," he says. "They grieve—in the wild they often fondle the bones of dead relatives."

Elephants also make close friendships, Atkinson says. And there are even instances of altruism. "At the Masai Mara in Africa," he explains, "I observed an elephant who’d lost most of her trunk in a snare. She couldn’t feed herself, should have starved. I never saw the other elephants feeding her, but it’s the only explanation for why she was in perfect condition."

The Elephant Sanctuary presents a chance for human altruism. "Our elephants have served people all their lives," Atkinson says. "Now it’s their turn to be served by us."

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