Asian elephant Tarra has resided at The Elephant Sanctuary since the very beginning, over 26 years. Tarra was our founding resident, and like so many other elephants, her life began in the wild, accompanied by her mother and other members of her herd. While still a calf, Tarra was captured and thrust into a life of captivity. She spent the next 20 years traveling, performing, and on exhibit. The first elephant to retire to The Elephant Sanctuary in 1995, Tarra holds a very special place in all our hearts.
The Sanctuary must now announce that Tarra's chapter at The Sanctuary has come to a close. After ten years of litigation, the Tennessee court system made the decision that legal custody and possession of Tarra lies with Carol Buckley (read more about the history of the case here). We received notification that Ms. Buckley planned to transfer Tarra to a new facility in Georgia. This week, the court issued a final order of custody, granted Ms. Buckley’s motion for immediate possession, and instructed The Sanctuary to “transfer possession of Tarra to Ms. Buckley on November 18, 2021." Tarra left The Sanctuary on Thursday as ordered.
We are deeply disappointed in this decision and had sincerely hoped that Tarra would be allowed to remain in Tennessee as a beloved member of our herd forever. We are grateful for the lasting impact she made at The Sanctuary and will forever honor her legacy. We will remember Tarra as paving the way for new elephants arriving at The Sanctuary, along with the daily delights and surprises she gave her Care Staff, not to mention the many, many supporters who read about her journey, witnessed her explorations live on The Sanctuary's EleCams, and who loved her alongside us.
Tarra was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1974. At six months old, she was captured from the wild and brought to the United States in a wooden crate. Tarra was first owned by a tire salesman, who exhibited her at his store in southern California. Carol Buckley purchased Tarra and trained her for performance; the two spent the next two decades traveling and performing at circuses, amusement parks, zoos, on television, and in advertising. In 1995, Tarra officially retired to The Elephant Sanctuary, founded for her by Buckley and Scott Blais.
In her retirement at The Sanctuary, Tarra warmed the hearts of fans around the world as the story and videos of her unlikely friendship with a small stray dog named Bella went viral. The pair were constant companions for eight years — eating, sleeping, playing, and exploring The Sanctuary's Asia Habitat together until Bella's passing in 2011 (watch the viral video here).
Tarra's "barking" vocalizations were easily recognized at The Sanctuary, sometimes heralding the arrival of a new resident or simply accompanying a sudden burst of excitement or emotion when greeting an old companion — of which there have been many. Tarra, ever the “social butterfly”, not only welcomed many new residents but often formed lasting bonds with them, easing their transition to Sanctuary.
"What I love most about Tarra is how social she is, how she would purposely take time to visit each one of her companions throughout the habitat. I remember soon after my arrival in 2011 noticing how Asia Barn's elephants would often choose to explore in different pairs. Even with these distinct social groupings, Tarra would make her rounds, traveling miles to visit with each group - always returning to Shirley afterwards to make sure she was doing okay," said Kristy E., Senior Manager of Elephant Care.
Tarra was also the first elephant to greet African elephant Nosey, The Sanctuary's newest arrival, proving once again her remarkable acceptance of other species. She is a curious elephant, always showing interest in what is happening around her, and demonstrated particular interest in Nosey's tusks and mouth, taking in everything she could about this new companion with her trunk. The two were often seen sharing hay, rumbling to one another softly across the fence line.
Care Staff have said that when Tarra was not spending time interacting with her herd mates, she was walking far and wide through the habitat, covering miles of terrain each week, if not each day. She explored many different corners of the 1600-acre Asia Habitat, and over the course of several days might be discovered at Secluded Pond, Turtle Pond Pasture, Marcella's, The Gauntlet, Hidden Pond, the lake, and the warming hut. “I love hearing Asia Barn Staff in the distance driving around the fence line to find Tarra and deliver her breakfast while she is off on another adventure. It’s like doing detective work, searching for a footprint or broken branch as a clue of her whereabouts,” said Eileen K., Veterinary Services Manager.
“One of my favorite memories of Tarra is when she swam all the way across the 25-acre lake, fully submerged and snorkeling with her trunk. She looked so wild, free, and full of spirit,” said Kelly M., Elephant Care Training Manager. Tarra’s adventurous spirit is indeed contagious and admirable, and monitoring Tarra's daily journeys could be a full-time job for Staff. “I know she will continue to blaze new trails forever.”
As the Husbandry Team planned for Tarra’s transition to a new home, everyone’s main focus was on her safety and comfort during transport. Care Staff began preparing Tarra by allowing her to get acquainted with The Sanctuary’s trailer since the actual transport trailer was not available. Inquisitive as always, she would step onto the ramp and into the trailer with all four feet. She received positive reinforcement, including some of the juiciest produce — watermelon, apples, and pears — as part of the process of introducing a new situation or object to elephants at The Sanctuary.
Her Caregivers felt it important for Tarra to have the opportunity to continue exploring and interacting with her companions, and she spent the last couple of weeks at The Sanctuary doing just that. She took advantage of one bright fall day to venture through Asia Habitat, walking the entire span of the habitat in just one day and spending the warmer night outside, sleeping under the stars. “Tarra and Sissy recently had a beautiful afternoon in Sleepy Spot, adventuring and taking in the warm fall sunshine,” said Summer Z., Asia Barn Caregiver. Sleepy Spot was a favorite napping location of the much-loved Shirley, another close companion of Tarra.
Sissy and Tarra often shared hay back at the barn. Asia Barn Caregiver, Hannah K., remarked, “Tarra is a little faster at pulling the hay from the barrel, so Sissy would stand there and wait for Tarra to pull all of it out and then pick up the hay from the ground, making quite the team.” When the two were together, there was always rumbling, trunk popping, and barking involved.
As Staff struggled with the news of an immediate transfer, they made sure Tarra had her favorite produce. They tossed bananas, blueberries, and oranges directly into her mouth just the way she likes, and offered plenty of pumpkin, a food she has much enjoyed this fall. Caregiver Elizabeth M. spent time giving Tarra a back scrub with brushes while Tarra continued to eat a flake of hay, and when she finished brushing one side, Tarra turned around as if to ensure her other side was brushed as well — taking her hay with her as she rotated, of course. Topping off the week’s many special treats, Sarah F., Asia Barn Lead, baked Tarra a vegan cake topped with strawberries. Tarra ate each of the strawberries first before picking up the rest of the cake.
The transport trailer arrived early Thursday morning. After getting the trailer in place and making sure it was secure, Tarra loaded onto the trailer and began her new journey and a new chapter. We understand Tarra arrived safely at the Georgia facility hours later.
“The Sanctuary is honored to have provided care for Tarra for 26 years, and we express gratitude for all the things she has taught us. She will be truly missed here, but will always be a part of our family and our herd,” said Janice Zeitlin, CEO.
Please join us in celebrating Tarra's legacy by sharing your favorite memory or tribute below.