The Way God Made Them: A Woman's Plight to Save the Elephant She Loves

She once engaged in what she now considers the abuse of circus elephants. But today, Carol Buckley is committed to giving elephants the life they were meant to have.
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An Elephant's Unprovoked Aggression

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.

Continued on page 2:  Buckley's Training Decisions


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