Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photos courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary
Since 1995, The Sanctuary has provided elephants retired from entertainment and exhibition with herd, home, and individualized veterinary and husbandry care for life. The sanctuary began on 110 acres and has grown to three separate and protected, natural habitats, spanning over more than 3,060 acres. Many of the elephants suffer long-term health and complex behavioral issues common to elephants that have spent their lives in captivity, such as tuberculosis, osteomyelitis, obesity, arthritis, and aggression. Because elephants have complex physical and social needs, successful outcomes are measured not only by the elephant’s physical health, but also their social, behavioral and psychological well-being. It is not open for public, but you can visit The Sanctuary’s Discovery Center, situated in downtown Hohenwald, providing educational programs, exhibits, and features a gift shop. If you are interested in learning, check out the sanctuary distance learning programs and if you want to volunteer, have a look at their onsite volunteer program. Elephants are considered endangered species. That’s why it is so important to spread awareness and to work towards conservation.
KB: Describe to the RSR readers how The Elephant Sanctuary was founded?
The Sanctuary was founded in 1995, with its first elephant resident, Tarra. Since then, The Sanctuary has provided refuge for 32 elephants who are retired from zoos and circuses. There are currently 11 elephant residents with room for more. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee began on 110 acres and has grown to three separate and protected, natural habitats, spanning over more than 3,060 acres.
KB: How many elephants are there and what are their age?
We currently have 11 elephants:
• Artie, African male age 40
• Donna, African female age 43
• Sukari, African female age 38
• Tange, African female age 50
• Flora African female age 41
• Nosey, African female age 41
• Sissy, Asian female age 55
• Bille, Asian female age 61
• Debbie, Asian female age 52
• Ronnie, Asian female age 57
• Minnie, Asian female age 57
KB: Where are the elephants coming from?
The elephants at the sanctuary come from diverse situations and backgrounds. Many of the resident elephants have arrived through collaborations between the elephant’s owners and The Sanctuary, each possessing their own unique qualities. The decision to retire an elephant from exhibition or performance is solely at the discretion of the legal owner. Notable instances of this include the warm welcome extended to Artie, an African male elephant, and Donna, a female elephant. In other cases where concerns about animal welfare arise, The Sanctuary is prepared to engage in discussions about the option of providing a retirement home in a sanctuary and the associated benefits, in cooperation with the owners and guardians of elephants held in captivity. In severe situations where owners fail to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act, the United States Department of Agriculture has the authority to confiscate elephants. Past examples of this include Nosey, an African female, and Billie, an Asian elephant.
KB: Coming from some sort of captivity, how do the elephants react when they realize they can roam free in your park?
Each elephant’s approach to acclimation varies. Some prefer to take their time, gradually adapting to their new surroundings. They may choose to explore specific areas one at a time before venturing further into their habitat. On the other hand, there are elephants like Artie, who quickly acclimate, eagerly exploring every nook and cranny of his habitat upon arrival and seizing every opportunity to topple trees. This tree-toppling behavior is a healthy and active pursuit for African elephants, and Artie had not had the chance to engage in this activity for decades. Above all, The Sanctuary is committed to creating a welcoming environment where every elephant can adjust at their own pace, whether they are cautious and deliberate or enthusiastic and swift in embracing their new home in Hohenwald.
KB: Describe to the RSR readers what daily work at The Sanctuary looks like?
The specific responsibilities vary by department, as we have approximately 50 employees at The Sanctuary, each fulfilling distinct roles. However, I understand your primary interest is in the daily tasks of the Elephant Care Staff. A crucial part of our mission involves delivering personalized care for every elephant. The Care Staff is present around the clock, ensuring that each elephant has unfettered access to their necessities. While the habitats provide a substantial portion of the elephants’ nutritional requirements, our dedicated staff also ensures they have a fresh supply of water, produce, hay, and tailored diets that best suit their individual needs. Furthermore, the staff engages in essential elephant care activities such as foot soaks, scrubs, and administering medications, when necessary, among other responsibilities. We also have Maintenance and Facilities teams tirelessly working to update and maintain habitat and barn spaces, ensuring the elephants have easy access to all areas and are comfortable. Additionally, we have a team of experienced veterinarians on-site to address any medical needs that may arise. It’s important to note that the majority of the elephants’ time is spent freely roaming the expansive habitats.
KB: Is the sanctuary open for public?
No. As a true sanctuary, we work to ensure the elephants are able to live their lives undisturbed in their habitats. Therefore, the elephants’ habitats are closed to the public. Additionally, with 3,060 acres, The Sanctuary is simply not set up to allow/ensure any sort of viewing of the elephants. The elephants have complete freedom of choice to explore their vast habitat—and only professional, ATV-trained Caregivers ever enter the habitats. You can always observe the elephants via our live-streaming EleCams at elephants.com! The Sanctuary’s Discovery Center, situated in downtown Hohenwald, Tennessee, is open to the public, and provides educational programs, exhibits, and features a gift shop. Within the Discovery Center, you’ll find an open-air Outdoor Classroom, serving as a welcoming path for both Hohenwald residents and visiting guests. The hands-on, self-guided exhibits are designed to educate visitors about the distinctions among various species and the essential ecological role that elephants play in the wild. For further information about The Discovery Center, please visit our website.
KB: Describe to the RSR readers your distance learning programs?
We have a wonderful team of educators who have reached nearly 14,000 individual learners through 400 programs in 35 US states and 8 different countries just this year through our Distance Learning Programs! During these virtual learning opportunities, students embark on a virtual journey to explore not only The Elephant Sanctuary, but the lives of elephants around the world – providing a broader understanding of cultural and environmental diversity. Our Distance Learning Programs have been thoughtfully designed to keep students of all ages entertained, informed, and inspired. We offer a variety of ways to connect, whether students are learning in school, from home, or a hybrid of both.
• Our experienced educators lead interactive virtual sessions that provide an in-depth look into the lives of elephants, their habitats, behaviors, and more. Students virtually visit The Elephant Sanctuary and learn all about elephants in the wild, fostering a sense of global awareness and empathy.
• From live streaming videos to interactive quizzes, students have access to a variety of engaging multimedia resources.
• Our interactive virtual field trips bring The Elephant Sanctuary into the classroom or to students’ homes through Zoom, Google Meet, or other video conferencing platform preferred.
• We believe in fostering curiosity and igniting a passion for learning, even in the virtual classroom. Our course is designed to keep students engaged, ensuring that distance learning is both fun and educational.
KB: Can people volunteer to help in the sanctuary?
Yes! There are several ways to volunteer, which you can learn about on our website. The Elephant Sanctuary’s onsite volunteer program serves two important purposes. It provides The Sanctuary with a devoted, short-term workforce helping complete a variety of work projects, and it gives The Sanctuary’s supporters an opportunity to donate time and energy to a cause they support while learning firsthand about the mission and work of The Elephant Sanctuary. We don’t offer volunteer experiences that include interaction with elephants, nor does The Sanctuary guarantee that elephants will be seen by volunteers during their Volunteer Day. We encourage those interested to check out our website to view eligibility, regulations, and dates.
KB: What is so special about elephants?
Elephants have an essential role in their environments and are known as a keystone species. Without them, their ecosystem, our planet, would be dramatically different or even cease to exist. Like elephants, humans are a keystone species and have an enormous impact on the ecosystem, carrying a great responsibility to keep the planet healthy for all. Besides being extremely intelligent and empathetic, here are a few examples of why they are so crucial to our planet and to other spices:
• African forest elephants use their long tusks to dig through dry ground until they reach water. The watering holes are critical for the survival of many other species.
• In the jungles of Asia, elephants help bring sunlight to the forest floor by consuming foliage and creating gaps in the plant growth. Elephants’ eating habits make sunny clearings for other species to inhabit and create greater plant diversity.
• Elephants are the largest land animal in the world, which also makes them the largest seed dispersal animal in the world. Elephants are herbivores and eat a variety of different plants, from sugar cane, banana palms, fruits, and melons to tree bark, leaves, and grass. Much of the seeds and plant material an elephant eats passes through their 20-meter-long stomach, with less than half their food being digested. This leaves full plant material and seeds within the dung, acting as a natural fertilizer that helps the seeds grow in different places along the elephants’ paths.
At the end of March 2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced that for the first time, both African species of elephants – African Forest and African Savanna – were assessed separately, leading to new conservation designations for each species. African Forest elephants would join their Asian cousins as critically endangered, and African Savanna elephants are considered endangered. This change in conservation status from a previous listing as vulnerable sheds light on the dire circumstances facing elephants and their conservation in the wild. Across the globe, elephants are facing unprecedented threats to the continuation of their species. This is why it is so important to spread awareness and to work towards conservation.