The Way God Made Them: A Woman's Plight to Save the Elephant She Loves
Buckley's Training Decisions
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."