Elephants are magnificent, intelligent creatures that are all too often taken from their natural habitats to be exploited in carnivals and circuses. Due to their unique needs, the care they receive isn’t always up to par.
At the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, these animals have a place to live out their lives in beautiful, natural habitats where all their needs are met. The sanctuary currently houses nine elephants on its 3,060 acres, and has taken in a total of 28 elephants since it opened in 1995.
“Our elephants come to us from all over North America,” says Sanctuary Education Manager Laura Roddy. “The majority of them were circus elephants, while some were confiscated by the government for violations against the Animal Welfare Act. Others were zoo elephants or privately-owned elephants.”
At the sanctuary, elephants receive individualized care for life. “Every elephant comes with a different history and different needs,” she says. “Shirley came to the sanctuary at the age of 51 after 20 years as a lone elephant in a zoo in Louisiana. Before that, her leg was injured in a circus. We had to learn how to work with her different ability. When Shirley passed away in 2021, she was 72 years old and the second oldest elephant in North America at that time.”
On average, elephants live between 45 and 50 years.
The sanctuary's current elephants range in age from 37 to 60. Billie just celebrated her 60th birthday; Sissy's been at the sanctuary the longest, arriving in January of 2000; and their most recent occupant, Nosey, came to them in 2017.
Historically, the Asian elephants and African elephants were always kept separate, but they have been doing introductions between an African and Asian elephant recently through a fence line. “They are completely different species from one another,” says Laura. “One of my favorite fun facts to tell students is that Asian elephants are actually more closely related to woolly mammoths than they are to African elephants. They also speak somewhat different languages.”
The sanctuary has a full-time veterinarian and veterinarian technician, one part-time veterinarian, plus on-site caregivers. They ensure all the elephants get plenty to eat and also have enjoyable enrichment activities, which helps keep them both mentally and physically stimulated. Sometimes it's a rope toy that they hide snacks in and hang up.
Elephants eat between 200 and 300 pounds of food every day. In the summertime, they eat as much vegetation as they want, but the sanctuary does supplement their diet with a specialized feed. They also love fruits and vegetables.
Overall, the Elephant Sanctuary has a two-part mission. “The first is to provide captive elephants with a safe haven dedicated to their wellbeing, and the second is educating the public on the complex needs of elephants and the crises facing elephants in the world,” she says. “We're trying to talk about living in a sustainable place where both elephants and humans alike can thrive.”
A majority of their educational mission is done through distance learning. “We talk virtually to different schools all over the country and world on a daily basis,” says Laura. “Outreach is a way to hopefully change things in the future.”
Visitors are not allowed to see the elephants in person. “We are a true sanctuary, which means we are closed to the public,” she says. “Our elephants have worked all of their lives. They've been in circuses or show business or on exhibition in some way, shape or form, so we want to give them the retirement they've earned and not have to worry about guests. They're just free to be elephants and live their lives.”
People can watch them on live-streaming EleCams, which are available 24/7. “We try to make sure there’s a view of an elephant, but because we have over 3,000 acres, sometimes there are no elephants on screen,” says Laura. “But, we think that's OK because that means they're out exploring and being elephants.”
People also can visit the Elephant Discovery Center at 27 East Main Street in Hohenwald. There, visitors learn about elephants and how the elephants are cared for at the sanctuary without actually being on site.
The sanctuary staff appreciates any and all donations to continue helping these exploited elephants live out their lives in peace and tranquility where they have the freedom to roam. “We are a nonprofit, so donations are always beneficial,” she says. “I really love the idea of being able to ‘adopt’ an elephant and feel like you’re attached to that elephant. It’s a wonderful way to create that symbolic connection between people and animals.”
Volunteers also are needed at the group's downtown Elephant Discovery Center. Even though people cannot work directly with the elephants, says Laura, they’re still helping and benefiting those elephants in some way. Another way to assist is by spreading the word about the crises facing elephants, such as poaching and declining habitats, and talking about ways to help.
To find out more, go to Elephants.com or follow the Elephant Sanctuary on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.