By Judith Graham
Tribune Staff Writer
January 30, 2000
HOHENWALD, Tenn.--The nervous elephant, known as a killer with a vicious temper, cautiously stepped down the ramp. Then, stopping midway, she clambered back into the trailer, hiding in the darkness.
For a half-hour the 8 1/2-foot-tall, 6,200-pound animal ventured forth and retreated, clearly uncertain, apparently afraid, with no way of knowing that she had arrived at the only refuge dedicated to elephants in the U.S.
"There's a good girl. What a good girl," cooed Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary, in encouragement, standing below at a safe distance.
The last time Sissy left a trailer for a new home, The El Paso (Texas) Zoo in October 1998, she was dragged out by chains around her legs and beaten with ax handles by several men for more than an hour when she didn't listen to their commands.
A videotape made by a concerned zoo worker and obtained by the news media in November 1999 provoked a huge public outcry. Federal officials slapped a $20,000 fine on the city after an investigation and the zoo's director was forced to resign.
Controversy swirls over the extent of such abuse. Some experts claim beatings of the 600 elephants in captivity in the U.S. are far more common than most people suspect. Trainers argue that elephants are dangerous animals that need to be controlled with the careful application of force. Animal-rights activists insist that elephants are gentle creatures that respond with aggression when they're mistreated. Zoos say the use of extreme disciplinary measures is uncommon.
It's not an academic debate. On Wednesday, an elephant killed a 52-year-old woman in a Florida circus family that provides wild animals to circus shows. Trainer deaths and injuries, though not publicized, are relatively common.
Congress will take up the issue in the next several weeks, when lawmakers debate the Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act, the first proposed federal bill to address the welfare of elephants in captivity and public safety. It would outlaw the interstate transport of the animals, effectively eliminating them from traveling circuses.
Meanwhile, what happens to Sissy in her new quarters is of keen interest to people who train and care about elephants because of the publicity she's received.
When the 38-year-old Asian elephant arrived just after noon Wednesday at this snow-dusted, rural, 112-acre spread in central Tennessee 100 miles southwest of Nashville, and surrounded by forests of oak, hickory, sycamore, black willow and yellow poplar, all she wanted was to be left alone, at least for a while.
"See how she has her back turned to the other elephants? That's a sign that she's intimidated," said Buckley, 45, who bought her first elephant, Tarra, from a tire dealer who kept her on display 25 years ago. Tarra, once thought to be the only roller-skating elephant in the country and the youngest of the five female Asian elephants who live at the sanctuary, was three stalls away in the 9,000-foot barn, looking curiously at the newcomer.
Barbara, the self-appointed matriarch of the group, and a loner by nature despite her inclination for leadership, was the first elephant allowed to approach Sissy after she munched on cabbages (her clear favorite), bananas, apples, oranges, carrots and fresh hay for about an hour.
Buckley watched Barbara walk slowly toward Sissy from the side and lean her large head a bit inward. "It's very interesting what she's doing. She wants to get close to Sissy's face, her most vulnerable spot." Sissy, not yet ready to interact, turned away and presented her back to Barbara.
"This is very similar to the behavior we saw at the El Paso Zoo," said Scott Blais, 26, who co-founded the sanctuary five years ago and who picked Sissy up and brought her cross-country. In El Paso, another of the three elephants would push and shove Sissy, and once knocked her down. "There's a lot of mistrust she's had" since her first day in El Paso, when the trainers beat her, he said.
They had reason to think Sissy was dangerous. In 1997, she killed an employee at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, where for 26 years she had lived alone, a favorite of the community. No one saw what happened. But from that point, the touchy elephant was considered a killer.
She had always been skittish when it came to being bathed or forced into her stall. Buckley is sure that has to do with a 1981 flood that swept Sissy from her enclosure in the Gainesville zoo and nearly drowned her. Caught underwater between two trees, the only way the elephant survived was by keeping her trunk in the air, wrapped around a tree limb.
It's one of the traumas that Buckley said she'll have to help Sissy get over for her to heal emotionally. Elephant trainers don't generally talk about the emotional life of elephants, but Buckley is convinced they're extraordinarily sensitive creatures that need affection, companionship and a chance to recover from experiences that have crushed their spirits.
How? By choosing what they want to do and when they want to do it instead of living by the rules people set, Buckley explained.
Many people in the elephant management business think it's a kooky approach. But Buckley, a straightforward, no-nonsense woman, tells the story of Shirley and Jenny, two of the elephants at the sanctuary, to make a point.
Shirley was a circus elephant for 25 years, until another elephant attacked her, breaking her right hind leg. She limps to this day, dragging the leg, which is shorter than the others, behind her. For another 22 years, Shirley resided at a zoo in Monroe, La., until her keepers decided this past July that a transfer to the sanctuary would be best for the aging elephant.
At the sanctuary she ran into Jenny, who had come here in ill health from an animal shelter outside Las Vegas, and who had known Shirley briefly in a circus years before. From the first moment of their reunion, the two have been inseparable. Out in the sanctuary's large pasture, they walked side by side, swaying together, even lifting their trunks together in a loud trumpeting roar.
The happier elephants are, Buckley noted, the louder they are, grunting, barking like seals or dogs, making low purring noises, and of course trumpeting when they're excited.
The two eat together at every meal, sharing their food. A third elephant, Bunny, transferred from the Mesker Zoo in Evansville, Ind., this past fall, is their sidekick.
On Wednesday, Sissy's first day at the sanctuary, the three stood together in a stall about 30 feet away, watching Sissy with dark, impenetrable eyes through steel bars. Slowly, Sissy backed into the area near them, turning sideways. Three trunks seemingly floated through the bars, touching Sissy on her legs, stomach, ears and trunk. At one point the tips of three trunks, including Sissy's, came together, breathing into each other, softly exploring.
The barn was silent as Buckley, Blais and a few volunteers held their breath. Was this the beginning of a sense of family that defines female elephant communities in the wild, they wondered? "Good girl. You've made some new friends," Buckley said, in a tone that mothers use with young children.
On Thursday, during her first bath with the hose, Sissy suddenly lifted her trunk twice and brought it down hard near Buckley. An angry elephant will lift or curl its trunk, flap its ears, squint its eyes and lash out, either grabbing someone or scaring them away. "I have no illusions. I know Sissy is dangerous. But I also think she's a sweetheart who needs to know that someone understands her," Buckley said.
"It's clear to me we're threatening people who are used to a different way of treating elephants," Buckley said. "If we can succeed with an elephant like Sissy, who everyone has written off, what does that say about their approach? We'll just to have to see."