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

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Buckley's Dream: An Elephant Sanctuary

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 or call 931-796-6500, ext. 26.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, October 2005.



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