Elephant rescue offers mud, bath, and lots of space

A Tennessee sanctuary reintroduces elephants to a natural habitat after years of captivity and abuse.

By , Staff photographer

Circuses and zoos aren't always fun - at least not for some of their biggest stars.

Jenny, for example, severely injured her back leg but still was forced to perform. Billie and Frieda were kept in isolation for 10 years. Liz's trunk is partially paralyzed, perhaps because of malnourishment or being struck repeatedly across the face.

But that was then. Today, they're part of a group of 19 retired zoo and circus elephants that have made it to The Elephant Sanctuary. Instead of enduring steel pens and chains, the pachyderms roam 2,700 acres of forest and pasture land in the rolling hills of central Tennessee. America's largest private natural refuge, the sanctuary boasts a climate, terrain, and vegetation surprisingly similar to the elephants' native Asian and African birthplaces. The animals are not on public display, and they set their own schedules.

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The changes are palpable. "The reality of a captive elephant's life is that many are in chains up to 18 hours a day," says Carol Buckley, cofounder of the sanctuary. Here, on a recent sunny day, Billie and Frieda, no longer in chains, emerged from the barn, fresh from their baths, trumpeting, chirping, and trotting.

"Play behavior is what we look for," says Ms. Buckley, "When they play, they go back to a happy place, like when they were babies."

Intelligent, social, and sensitive, elephants form matriarchal groups and intense friendships. The hope is that the animals at the sanctuary - all female - will bond.

There are some 600 captive elephants in the United States, say Buckley and Scott Blais, the other founder of the sanctuary. They track the situation of each one.

Eventually, they hope to accommodate more than 100 elephants. At the moment, that's a stretch for the sanctuary (www.elephants.com), supported solely by private donations from its 62,000 supporters. Care for each elephant costs $1,000 a month.

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