Our Q&A with The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee

Tarra (Asian Elephant)

How did the Elephant Sanctuary get started?

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was started by two elephant trainers traveling with an elephant named Tarra. As they learned more about the needs of elephants, they realized that a life of near constant travel with no elephant companions was not the best life for Tarra or for any elephant. The Elephant Sanctuary was created out of their vision for a place where elephants could retire from public life and live out their days in a vast habitat with other elephants and the freedom to choose how they would spend their time.

Why Tennessee?

When the founders were looking for a place to start The Sanctuary they wanted an area with a relatively mild climate, diverse habitat offerings and a multitude of vegetation for foraging and enrichment opportunities. They were based in Nashville when they began their search and Hohenwald was recommended to them. Here they found land that met these needs at a relatively affordable price tag and the rest is history.

Debbie (Asian Elephant)

Who all runs The Elephant Sanctuary?

The Elephant Sanctuary is a 501c3 nonprofit meaning we are fully donor-funded and have an advisory board and CEO who oversee the mission and vision of The Sanctuary. The day-to-day operation of The Sanctuary takes a full-time staff who contribute to our mission of providing excellence, individualized care to elephants and educating the public on the crisis facing elephants, both captive and wild. We have a full-time team of professional elephant Caregivers who take care of the day-to-day needs of the elephants as well as full-time veterinarian staff who oversee their healthcare. We also have dedicated staff for facilities and maintenance, education, outreach, communications, and donor relations.

How many years have y’all been in operation?

Twenty-four years. The Sanctuary was founded in 1995.

Nosey (African Elephant)

Why elephants?

There is quite a large population of captive elephants in the US – over 400 – and before The Sanctuary was started there were few options for those living in less than ideal conditions, those aging out of circuses or those in zoos which were evolving their animal welfare philosophies. There was a great need for a place like The Sanctuary for these animals in particular.

How many do you have?

We have 11 elephants – 4 African Savanna elephants and 7 Asian elephants.

What breeds do you have?

There are 3 distinct species of elephants living in the world today: African Savanna, African Forest and Asian. We have 2 of those species at The Sanctuary: African Savanna and Asian. The general consensus is that African Forest elephants only exist in the wild and have never been captured for captivity.

Flora (African Elephant)

What are some of the activities all do with the elephants?

The elephants have the freedom to choose how they spend their time whether that be swimming in a pond, wallowing in the mud or exploring the habitat with other elephants. The only thing we “ask” the elephants to do is to participate in their health care. We use protected contact – meaning there is a barrier like a fence between Caregivers and the elephants – and positive reinforcement to ask the elephants to present their ears, eyes or bodies for inspection and care. Positive reinforcement means that the elephants receive food rewards and vocal praise when they choose to participate in these training sessions – force is never used to manage an elephant. And because this is completely voluntary, the elephant can choose to walk away at any point. This management style has been incredibly successful at building trust between the elephants and their Caregivers and allows us to address all of their healthcare needs.

Minnie and Ronnie (Asian Elephants)

Training and health care are still just a small fraction of each elephants day and the rest of the time is spent how they choose. For many of our elephants that means exploring the vast habitats and socializing with others. However in the winter months, when the elephants are spending more time inside the barns, the Caregivers are proactive about providing enrichment to stimulate the elephants minds and bodies. Enrichment could include a puzzle feeder that challenges the elephant to use their trunks in new ways to find the food reward inside. In other cases, Caregivers create a forest inside the barns with different types of browse – tree limbs, trunks and branches – that provide the elephants different tastes and textures to engage their senses throughout the day or night.  

Shirley (Asian Elephant)

Do you move them from one area of the sanctuary to another?

The Sanctuary has three separate and protected habitats for elephants: Asian, African, and Q Habitat. They do not move from one habitat to another.

Sissy (Asian Elephant)

What do you want people to know about these elephants?

Part of our mission is to educate the public about the complex needs of captive elephants as well as the crisis facing them in the wild. I would want people to know that our elephants and all elephants are highly intelligent animals with complex physical and emotional needs that we strive to meet at The Sanctuary. I would also want them to know that wild elephants are facing a crisis; African elephants are listed as vulnerable and Asian elephants are listed as endangered. These animals are under the constant threat of poaching, habitat loss and human elephant conflict. We can all do our part by speaking up for elephants, advocating for their welfare in captivity and for their conservation in the wild.

When it comes to taking care of many elephants do you have any pointers or knowledge that come from experience?

Tange (African Elephant)

Because of our 24 years of work with an aging elephant population, we have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge when it comes to the challenges that face aging captive elephants. Our Caregivers and Veterinarian team have faced numerous challenges that they have worked together to creatively address to give our resident elephants the best care possible. Our Elephant Care department networks with other elephant care professionals to share these successes and also to learn from others.

At 70-years-old, Shirley is the third oldest elephant in North America. She spent 46 years performing and on exhibit before retiring to The Sanctuary in 1999. Age-related changes common to captive elephants have affected the pace at which Shirley travels The Sanctuary’s 2,700 acres. Together, our Veterinarian and Caregiver teams custom-designed a treatment of antimicrobial sponges and soft, flexible epoxy to protect Shirley’s feet, promote healing, and increase her overall comfort so that Shirley can continue to explore her vast habitat.

What would you say to someone that wants to know more about your elephants?

We have a robust education program for anyone who wants to learn more about The Sanctuary, our elephants or elephants in general. In our Distance Leaning program we utilize Skype to connect with students all over the world to spread our mission and to encourage students to be advocates for all elephants, captive and wild. Last year we were able to connect with over 11,000 students in 19 countries and 40 states through this program.

Sukari (African Elephant)

We also have a brand new Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald. This interactive learning space is open to the public – school groups, families, drop-in visitors and tourists alike – to offer a glimpse into the life of The Sanctuary elephants.  At the Discovery Center you can feel the low-frequency vibrations elephants use to communicate or touch and feel the tools Caregivers use to care for the elephants. While no elephants are present at the Discovery Center we do have live-streaming views from their habitats via our EleCams as well as an interactive touch screen map of The Sanctuary habitats to help visitors virtually explore.

Do you have any funny experiences or stories involving the elephants?

Billy (Asian Elephant)

Check out our elephant bios online for our incredible life stories at www.elephants.com/elephants