A life unfolding
When Carol Buckley decided to open the country’s first natural habitat for elephants, she met with plenty of skepticism. Now more than 20 years after co-founding the Elephant Sanctuary on 112 acres in Hohenwald, Tennessee, the dauntless pioneer is set to open her second such haven, Elephant Refuge North America, in Attapulgus, Georgia.
Tenacious from the start
Carol Buckley was born determined — an independent thinker who believed in challenging limits, no matter how formidable.
“My personality has always been this way: nothing’s impossible, anything’s doable,” says the Oakland, California, native. “I’ve always been resistant to anyone saying you can’t do that.”
So when in 1995, she decided to open an elephant sanctuary for Tarra, her 21-year-old Asian elephant, she remained resolute in the face of her naysayers.
“I said, ‘We’re going to build our own space, we’re going to have our own elephant family and we’re going to have complete control of the management and care of the animals,’” recalls Carol. “I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. I just thought there are people who are going to believe in it and the money is going to come, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Growing in commitment
Today, the Elephant Sanctuary, which she founded with Scott Blais in Tennessee, spans 2,700 acres, and has offered refuge and companionship to more than two dozen former performing and exhibiting elephants.
Now, through her nonprofit Elephant Aid International, which she founded in 2009, Carol is building another haven to meet the pachyderms’ complex biological and psychological needs. Her new project, Elephant Refuge North America, will be home to up to 10 elephants on 850 acres in Attapulgus, Georgia. Just as in Hohenwald, it will be closed to the public.
“My motivation is to improve elephant welfare,” says Carol. “It’s not just about growing and growing. What I want is to give them autonomy and truly allow them to thrive, to just relax and be an elephant.”
No grand plan
She may be one of the world’s premier experts in elephant rehabilitation, but no one has been more surprised by her career path than Carol herself.
“I’ve never had a game plan. My whole life just keeps evolving, unfolding in front of me,” she says. “I’m just thankful for the next offering and the next gift and I go with it.”
What she has always possessed is a deep affection for animals. Growing up, she considered her dogs, cats, rabbits, even her pet goose friends — not unlike her best friend Sue who lived down the street.
When she decided to enroll in the Exotic Animal Training program at Moorpark College, she was simply looking to connect more deeply with the creatures she loved.
“What I really liked the most was you could have a relationship with them where they enjoyed being around you and with you. We label it ‘animal training,’ but for me it was just another way of communicating with animals,” she says.
Then, in 1975, while still a student at Moorpark, she met 6-month-old Tarra.
The journey of a lifetime
The baby elephant was being kept on display at a local tire shop. Carol, then 20, became her volunteer caretaker, saving enough money to buy her from her owner a year and a half later.
“I was smitten,” she admits. “She just hooked me and I became extremely overprotective of her and very driven to learn about her species so I could do right by her. I didn’t want to work with any other animals.”
The duo spent two decades performing in circuses, amusements parks, zoos, and on screen. By the time Carol decided to limit Tarra’s work to summer-only educational exhibits, allowing her to spend most of the year at their private compound in Los Padres National Park, she had become attuned to the suffering of captive-held elephants.
She wanted to give them the space they needed to roam, to socialize, to heal from the traumas of confinement. Tarra was her inspiration for the Elephant Sanctuary and will hopefully be the first elephant to move into the Attapulgus refuge when it opens.
“She has just taken me on my life’s journey,” says Carol. “She is it. She is the reason I do anything, the reason I’ve learned anything. She is my mentor.”
A life she loves
In addition to establishing these natural habitats for aging and sick elephants, Carol also works extensively throughout Asia. Her many projects overseas include building solar-powered, chain-free corals for captive elephants and helping elephant trainers develop more positive relationships with their animals while learning skills to keep them healthy.
While she is heartened by the ever-growing animal welfare movement, she believes we still have much to learn. Her own work may be as challenging as it is rewarding, but to her, it’s all a gift.
“I’m not looking for an easier life. I’m not trying to simplify my life. I’m looking to live a full life,” she says. “If that means some things are complicated, if it means sometimes I’m devastated, that’s OK, because I’m living.”
Photo credit: Elephant Aid International