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Carol Buckley could not believe her eyes. The veteran animal trainer watched in alarm as Tarra, her Asian elephant, attacked an employee at the Kansas City Zoo. The 13-year-old circus elephant, who had spent the day giving rides, was heading back to her stable when a concession stand worker gave her a few pieces of bread. After eating her treat, the 6,000-pound Tarra suddenly took a step forward and lunged at the woman, butting her with her massive forehead and knocking her down.
A docile, playful soul who had long thrived on the attention of circus crowds and loved learning new tricks, Tarra had grown uncooperative and demanding with strangers. "I hollered at her to 'back up,' 'leave it' and 'come here,' and she finally did," says Buckley, whose memories of the 18-year-old incident are still vivid. "I never dreamed Tarra would become aggressive. I was totally shocked."
The Southern California native, who had studied exotic animal training in college, and had begun an apprenticeship with a professional elephant trainer in 1974, bought Tarra as an infant the following year after seeing her being paraded around a tire store as a promotional gimmick. While living on a two-acre farm in nearby Ojai for several years and housing Tarra in a backyard barn, Buckley trained the animal on her own, using a technique that stressed positive reinforcement and precluded corporal punishment.
"To Tarra, I was Mom, not master," says Buckley, 51, who spent a lot of downtime happily bonding with her then nearly 2-ton baby. She'd stroke Tarra, who returned the affection by gently touching Buckley's head and face with the tip of her trunk. "It's known as 'snorkeling,'" she says. "It's the way elephants greet, caress, and comfort one another."
Together they traveled the country, performing at animal parks, zoos, and small circuses; Tarra even appeared on television, in movies, and at the Academy Awards. Buckley earned some $30,000 a year, which covered her expenses, but not much more.
Her trainer, however, criticized her for handling Tarra the wrong way. He warned that a poorly trained and spoiled elephant can easily kill a trainer and end up getting killed itself. So at his insistence, when Tarra was 2 years old Buckley began using an ankus, a spiked goad with a two-pronged hook at the end designed to pierce an elephant's hide, leaving an open wound, if the animal fails to obey the trainer.
"He was a professional, so I didn't question him," says Buckley. "Before, I was willing to repeat commands. But now I was more strict and spoke more harshly, and Tarra had no choice but to respond immediately -- or be punished."
At age 10, Tarra started to get more difficult to manage, and her bad behavior persisted for the next three years. Buckley soon became convinced that the prevailing wisdom among her mentors was wrong. "By being domineering and aggressive ourselves, we actually teach elephants in captivity to be aggressive, too," she says. In 1988, to give Tarra a break from performing, Buckley found her a home at several zoos where she herself also worked as an elephant keeper.
Tarra seemed to enjoy it at first, but the confines of the zoos soon became boring, and she would show her distress by standing at her enclosure's fence, bobbing and swaying. Buckley came to believe that captivity, whether in a circus or at a zoo, was a heartbreaking experience because it denied elephants the most essential thing they needed: the ability to roam freely in the company of their herd, as they do in nature.
"How sad that it took me so long to learn all this," she says. "It's a terrible guilt to carry."
Buckley began to dream of establishing a haven where Tarra and other elephants could live the way nature intended -- foraging for food in diverse terrain, sleeping in the sunlight, spraying themselves with pond water. It took seven years for Buckley and business partner Scott Blais to save enough money to buy a verdant 110-acre farm in Hohenwald, Tennessee. When their Elephant Sanctuary opened, in 1995, Buckley figured she could afford to keep no more than four elephants (food and veterinary care run about $1,500 a month for each animal). But once word of the sanctuary got out, donations started pouring in -- from schoolchildren, individuals, and fund-raisers held by those concerned with the welfare of captive elephants; royalties from Buckley's 2002 kid-friendly memoir, Travels with Tarra, were another source of income.
Today the sanctuary, which has a staff of 18 and an operating budget of $1.5 million a year, is home to 11 Asian and African elephant residents, all of them old, ill, or needy females from zoos and circuses that will be able to live out their days -- elephants have an average life span of 70 years -- in a natural habitat.
The sanctuary will soon expand even further -- although not as much as Buckley would like. Earlier this year she began negotiating with the Hawthorn Corporation, an Illinois animal-exhibiting business, to take 11 of its female elephants after USDA officials charged Hawthorn owner John Cuneo with failing to care for the elephants properly.
The sanctuary quickly raised $2.5 million to build a new barn to house them; construction is scheduled to be completed soon. But last spring Cuneo suddenly decided to fight the USDA court order and plans to send four of the younger breeding-age elephants to an animal foundation run by the Carson & Barnes Circus, in Hugo, Oklahoma, which itself has been cited for improper handling of elephants. The USDA approved his request, disappointing and angering many animal rights activists.
"This is just terrible," Buckley says. "Elephants are very social, and this herd -- after all it's been through -- very much needs to be kept together."
Buckley comforts herself with the thought that she hopes to receive the seven remaining females of the Hawthorn elephants later this year, giving them the "very best home possible." Meantime, Tarra, now a frisky 31-year-old, is reveling in her hard-earned retirement. "She's very partial to Shirley, our matriarch, and acts like a kid around her. It's fun to watch them play," Buckley says. "They're happy, and that makes it all worth it."
To donate, see www.elephants.com or call 931-796-6500, ext. 26.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, October 2005.