Carol Buckley is a co-founder and the Executive Director of The Elephant Sanctuary, the first refuge created in the United States specifically for Asian elephants. She also is a co-founder and active member of the Alliance for Elephants, an organization dedicated to "restoring, preserving and promoting the welfare of captive elephants."
Before working to create the Sanctuary and Alliance, Carol was for almost 15 years a circus performer who toured throughout the world.
Since creating the Sanctuary on an approximately 800-acre tract of land in Hohenwald, TN along with former zookeeper Scott Blais in 1995, Carol has spoken about elephant welfare at numerous conferences and zoos in the United States and Canada.
Q: How did you become interested in working with animals?
Carol:Like many other individuals, I was a bit of an animal collector when I was a child. The pets I had back then are what made me want to work with animals. After graduating from high school, I entered into the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program offered by Moorpark College in Southern California. While I was attending the school, I met a baby elephant that had been purchased by a local businessman for use as a promotional aid. She had just been taken from the wild, and was only 6 months old. I took care of Fluffy — and trained her — on a volunteer basis. I purchased Fluffy and renamed her Tarra about a year and a half after first meeting her.
Q: Was Tarra the inspiration for The Elephant Sanctuary?
Carol:Yes — she was. My relationship with her has been going on now for about 29 years.
Q: What made you want to work exclusively with elephants?
Carol:I was drawn to elephants by their intelligence — especially their ability to comprehend ideas. Tarra’s ability to comprehend ideas I was trying to convey to her and remember them even when she was a baby astounded me. The other thing that drew me to elephants was their natural curiosity. Baby elephants in particular are sponges for knowledge. I found keeping Tarra’s training sessions and life interesting for her to be a challenge. I would always have to find new things to teach her.
Q: What prompted you to discontinue performing in circuses and found The Elephant Sanctuary?
Carol:As Tarra matured, I realized that what satisfied her when she was a baby would not continue to satisfy her when she was an adult. When Tarra reached the point at which performing in a circus no longer brought her joy, I knew that I had to make a change. I eventually decided that the best way for me to meet Tarra’s future needs would be to offer her as natural an existence as possible.
Q: Why did you choose Hohenwald as the location for the Sanctuary?
Carol:I lived north of Nashville for several months — that gave me an opportunity to look around the area. The tract of land I chose was exactly like the one I'd been envisioning for the refuge for more than 10 years. In addition, the temperature range, vegetation and seasons were all right.
Q: How many elephants are you currently caring for at the Sanctuary?
Carol:Six — along with Tarra, we have Bunny, Jenny, Shirley, Sissy and Winkie.
Q: Are all six female?
Carol:Yes — they are. It's not natural for adult female and male Asian elephants to live together. Asian elephants live in herds of related females and only very young males. The males are forced to leave the herd when they are between 6 and 10 years old.
Q: Do you work directly with the elephants?
Carol:Yes — I do. I also run the business office, arrange elephant acquisitions and develop and implement public education programs.
Q: What prompted the creation of the Alliance for Elephants?
Carol:We wanted to create a network of individuals who would participate in establishing and promoting progressive captive elephant management principles based on scientific knowledge. We promote the use of positive reinforcement. We believe that punishment should never be employed.
Q: Are you currently making any changes to the sanctuary?
Carol:We are having new barns and warming huts built.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Carol:We are going to expand onto an additional 2,500 acres. We plan to divide the land in half and put up a fence so that we can have a separate area for African elephants. We are hoping to take in our first one in the fall. The African elephants will also all be female. We plan to have built an educational complex that will be located just outside of the sanctuary. Individuals who come to make use of it will not be allowed to go into the sanctuary, but they will be able to see the elephants and the environment in which they live through binoculars and cameras. We'd like to begin hosting an annual conference in the near future. We'd also like to become more active in promoting the welfare of both wild and captive elephants in Asia and Africa.