News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today

Winks and Misty bond at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Learn more about the nonprofit organization from its founder at a lecture at the Princess Theatre on Monday.
Courtesy photo/The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
Winks and Misty bond at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Learn more about the nonprofit organization from its founder at a lecture at the Princess Theatre on Monday.

Unpacking their TRUNKS
Lecture to offer behind-the-scenes look at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where once captive animals roam free from circus chains or cramped zoo habitats

By Danielle Komis Palmer · 340-2447

Eighty-five miles southwest of the crowded, fast-paced interstates and freeways of Nashville, nearly 20 elephants roam a 2,700-acre wilderness.

These elephants, unlike many in the country, are finally free.

They are free from the noise and fanfare of high-top tents, platforms and costumes, and free from cramped zoo habitats and the staring eyes of visitors.

That freedom allows these majestic creatures to live like their counterparts in the wild, said Carol Buckley, founding director of the 12-year-old elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. The nonprofit sanctuary is the nation's largest natural-habitat elephant refuge, and is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"Most people have no idea that to force an elephant to live in a zoo enclosure or live in chains in a circus — they don't recognize how intensely harmful that is," Buckley said. "It's a death sentence for the animal."

Buckley will speak at the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts on Monday at 7 p.m. for the first lecture event of the theater's season. The Princess lecture series is a partnership with Calhoun Community College and Bank Independent.

Buckley's lecture, entitled "The Elephant Sanctuary: A Captive Elephant's Only Acceptable Alternative," will feature video footage of the sanctuary's elephant residents that have all been retired from zoos and circuses. She will also present an overview of the history and operations of the sanctuary and address the crisis facing the animals in captivity and in their home ranges.

The downfalls of captivity

Three of four captive elephants will die from a bone disease caused by long periods of standing or lying on hard surfaces — an affliction unique to those in captivity, Buckley said. The large creatures are naturally migratory animals, and in the wild, walk 30 to 50 miles each day. This migratory characteristic makes them poorly suited for lives in zoos and circuses, where they may spend up to 18 hours per day in chains, Buckley said.

While third-party animal rights groups invoke many of the sanctuary's placements, some zoos have begun to acknowledge that they cannot provide large enough areas for elephants. The sanctuary recently received a placement from the Philadelphia Zoo for that reason.

Buckley spent 15 years traveling the world with the circus and 20 years promoting, exhibiting, training and caring for a female Asian elephant named Tarra, who performed for television, motion pictures and circus shows. Buckley has an extensive background in developing elephant management programs and providing their medical care. Buckley's experience with captive elephants eventually led her to help create the sanctuary so these animals could have a better life.

At The Elephant Sanctuary, the mild-mannered beasts roam free in three separate and protected natural-habitat environments for Asian and African elephants. The elephants form their own intricate social structures as elephants do in the wild, grieve for their dead, and show humor and expression compassion for one another, Buckley said.

They don't perform or entertain the public. In fact, the sanctuary is closed to the public, which is why the sanctuary created "Elecams" for its Web site, Online, the public may watch and hear the elephants in real-time, and also read biographies of each one in the sanctuary.

The non-profit organization's does not breed the animals at the sanctuary (all of them are females) but prefers to focus on protecting elephants still in the wild so that they don't get trapped or killed for human exploitation, and then later end up at their near-capacity refuge.

"They're a really committed, dedicated group," said Lindy Ashwander, executive director of the Princess Theatre. " (The sanctuary) is just up the road and most people don't know it even exists. We hope it's a good way to do some educational programming in our community. We're always looking for such interesting topics."

If you go

What: “The Elephant Sanctuary: A Captive Elephant’s Only Acceptable Alternative” Lecture

Who: Carol Buckley, founding director of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Where: Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, Decatur

When: Monday, 7 p.m.

General admission tickets are $10 or $5 for students and teachers, available at the door or in advance at the Princess Theatre box office. For more information, call 350-1778 or visit

On the Net

Elephant Sanctuary Web site:

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