“Good fences make good neighbors.”
Whatever became of Carol Buckley, the former circus elephant trainer who founded the world-renowned Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, but made a controversial exit in March 2010?
“Buckley is currently in Thailand installing the country’s first solar powered chain-free corrals for captive elephants,” Elephant Aid International publicist Patricia Jones told ANIMALS 24-7 in July 2015.
Elephant Aid International, also founded by Buckley, “built the first chain-free corral in Asia in 2012,” Jones said. “The corrals were designed to help relieve the pain, isolation and despair of captive-held elephants. Day after day, often with no shelter to escape the sun’s burning rays, they stand for long hours, legs shackled together in heavy chains that prevent them from moving more than a few inches in any direction.
“The corrals are surprisingly simple,” Jones continued, “constructed with metal corner posts and thin horizontal wire. A battery back-up solar power energizer emits a pulsating current that is harmless to animals but creates a barrier that is proven to keep captive-held elephants in and wild elephants out. The battery requires only three hours of sunlight to run the energizer for an entire week, day and night. The system can be constructed in dense forest, open fields or any area, however remote.”
No risk of electrocution
Electrocution by fencing and power lines ranks second only to poaching among human threats to Asian elephants. More than 330 elephants have been electrocuted in India since 2003, and dozens more in other Asian nations that have wild elephants. But Buckley believes her fencing system is entirely safe.
“The corrals are powered by an energizer that draws solar energy stored in a regular size car battery. The 10-volt pulsating current is harmless, since it is a broken current. Even if someone wanted to misuse it, it could not harm anyone,” Buckley told ANIMALS 24-7.
Thailand, Nepal, & India
Elephant Aid International is active in three nations with substantial Asian elephant populations, both wild and captive: Thailand, Nepal, and India. In each nation Buckley is working first to improve the care of captive elephants, but her fencing techniques might also eventually be used to protect crops from elephant depredation, and to keep elephants away from trains and other vehicular traffic.
“In Thailand,” Jones said, “Elephant Aid International will construct chain-free corrals at two locations: Friends of the Asian Elephant,” founded in 1993 by Soraida Salwada, and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary,” founded in 20014 by British expatriate Kathleen Connor in memory of a baby elephant named Boon Lott.
“Both projects are privately funded,” Jones stipulated.
At Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Jones said, “After the chain-free corrals are installed, 17 elephants who have spent their nights in chains to keep them from raiding the neighbors’ crops will be able to walk freely.”
Survived Nepal quake
“In Nepal,” Jones said, “Elephant Aid International designed and built the first chain-free elephant corral for the National Trust for Nature Conservation. The project was so successful that the government of Nepal asked Elephant Aid International to convert all of its 15 elephant facilities, housing 63 elephants, to chain-free. The project, which was privately funded by many small donors, was completed in April of this year.”
On April 7, 2015, confirmed a Chitwan National Park media release, “Five female pachyderms who had lived a life of pain, used to being tortured by their handlers and chained on their front legs and shackled, were released into a chain-free enclosure with solar-powered electric fencing. With this, Chitwan National Park, a world heritage property that boasts the best habitat for a good number of endangered tigers and rhinos, has become the first-ever protected area in the country (and probably also in the world) to release all its 63 working elephants into chain-free enclosures.
“During the first phase of the project started in 2014, a total of 33 elephants were introduced to the chain-free corral,” the release added, “while the remaining elephants were freed this year.”
The last of the Chitwan National Park elephants were released just 18 days before the Nepal earthquake of April 25, 2015, which killed nearly 10,000 people and was followed by an aftershock a month later that was nearly as big.
The fencing held up. “The corral is constructed of steel corner posts and high tension horizontal wire,” Buckley told ANMALS 24-7. “It is designed to flex with movement like wildlife crashing into it. Earth movement has no affect on it at all.”
Bannerghatta Bio Park project
Earlier, in January 2015, Buckley and Elephant Aid International collaborated with PETA/India to create a 49.5-hectare elephant sanctuary at Bannerghatta Biological Park, just outside Bangalore.
India has about 28,000 elephants left in the wild, more than half of the total population of Asian elephants; and the longest record of protecting both wild elephants and elephant habitat of any nation, beginning about 2,240 years ago.
But extending protection to the estimated 3,500 elephants in captivity in India, in conflict with a 3,500-year history of elephant use and exhibition, has proved to be an uphill battle.
The custom of keeping temple elephants originated millennia ago as a system of retiring former working elephants, but was soon perverted into keeping elephants to help attract temple visitors and offerings. Only in recent years has the Indian humane community begun to successfully prosecute temples for keeping elephants or using them in processions under abusive conditions.
The first known confiscations of abused and/or neglected temple elephants came in 2009.
Elephant exhibition banned
Almost simultaneously, the Central Zoo Authority of India in November 2009 decreed that elephants may no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses. The Animal Welfare Board of India on November 15, 2013 reinforced the order by announcing that it would no longer license elephants for circus use, and would prosecute circuses that use sick, injured, and unlicensed animals.
But neither the Central Zoo Authority, the Animal Welfare Board, nor the humane community had anywhere to put confiscated elephants in significant numbers.
The Bannerghatta Biological Park project is intended to help remedy that situation.
“This 49.5 hectare sanctuary within the Biological park ––which is an extension of Bannerghatta National Park––will allow the herd to roam and bathe in ponds freely without being restricted by chains or without any human interference,” reported Vishwa Mohan of the Times of India News Network soon after Buckley’s visit.
“The sanctuary is home to 15-year-old Sunder, who was liberated by the Supreme Court in 2014 from a harsh life at the Jyotiba temple in Maharashtra. It now houses 15 elephants,” PETA/India representative Manilal Valliyate told Mohan.
Buckley, 61, became caretaker for a then one-year-old elephant named Tarra in 1974, while attending Moorpark College in southern California. Tarra had been imported from Burma (now called Myanmar) by a California tire dealer as a promotional stunt just before the Endangered Species Act halted elephant imports by private parties.
Not knowing that conventional elephant training belief held that elephants could not learn to roller skate, Buckley built special heavy-duty roller skates for Tarra and taught her to use them.
A year later Buckley borrowed $25,000, bought Tarra and performed with her in circuses until 1984. Buckley and Tarra retired from performing after Buckley came to realize through personal experience and observation that circus life is not natural for elephants.
Among Buckley’s concerns about circus treatment of elephants was the ubiquitous use of the ankus, the traditional elephant handler’s staff, also known as the bullhook or elephant hook.
American SPCA founder Henry Bergh in 1884 persuaded the theatrical elephant exhibition company Poole & Gilmore to stop using the ankus. Few others before Buckley have had comparable success.
Chaining elephants, at least overnight, another practice Buckley came to deplore, also remains standard procedure almost everywhere that elephants are kept.
But neither the ankus or chaining are needed to train and control elephants, Buckley believes––and has devoted her life to demonstrating.
“I really came full circle with Tarra,” Buckley told ANIMALS 24-7. “At first, before we started performing, I did not use a hook on her. I knew nothing of elephant hooks. I trained Tarra by using operant conditioning: positive reinforcement. But then Tarra and I caught the eye of the circus industry and we were taken into the fold. At 21 years of age I thought I was the luckiest want-to-be-trainer on the planet. Unfortunately I was trained to use the weapon, and that is how it is used, to inflict pain or the threat of pain. The use of the hook is part of a mindset of dominance.
“Cannot have bullhooks without abuse”
“I was indoctrinated with the traditional style of elephant management, of chains, bullhooks, dominance and systematic abuse,” Buckley regretted. “I was young and naïve. Tarra was good to me, even though I changed and was not so good to her. But we survived the circus and zoo industry influence on me, because deep inside I really cared about Tarra. When I got some perspective and a few years older, I began to realize that the industry was full of rather sadistic people who really knew little and cared even less for the elephants in their care. When I realized what I had become and how it was affecting Tarra, I started the Elephant Sanctuary and we started a new life.
“It is my experience that you cannot have bullhooks without abuse,” Buckley emphasized, “because the bullhook is the tool used in a system that thrives on dominance and systematic abuse. Bullhooks, chains and dominance have always been banned from the Elephant Sanctuary. We care for our elephants with a system that requires mutual respect. The elephants dictate their own lives.”
The Elephant Sanctuary
Buckley and former circus colleague Scott Blais opened the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995, just outside the town of Hohenwald.
The Elephant Sanctuary is in effect a retirement home, and to some extent a hospice, for elephants who have been retired from zoos and circuses. Most are geriatric; many arrive suffering from severe, albeit frequently premature, conditions of age, for example arthritis and other foot and knee problems exacerbated by years of standing on concrete pads.
Expanding from the original 112 acres to 2,700 acres, the Elephant Sanctuary during Buckley’s 15-year tenure housed 24 elephants, ten of whom died there.
Under Buckley the Elephant Sanctuary survived stresses including the July 2006 death of senior caregiver Joanna Burke when an elephant knocked her down with her trunk and then stepped on her, a 2009 tuberculosis outbreak that spread from an elephant to eight staff members, and an ensuing bitter split between Buckley and Blais.
The Elephant Sanctuary today
Buckley exited in March 2010 to begin Elephant Aid International. Blais left in mid-2011, and Buckley’s successor as chief executive, former Royal SCPCA wildlife program director Rob Atkinson, resigned in September 2012, only two years after his arrival.
Despite the instability, the Elephant Sanctuary remained true to Buckley’s vision of creating a largely human-free environment for the resident elephants, including Tarra.
Buckley’s founding concept was that the Elephant Sanctuary elephants had endured so much stress and abuse from humans that they should be allowed to spend their last years––or decades––off exhibit.
This idea has obviously appealed to the individuals and foundations who contribute more than $4 million a year, but has been questioned as unrealistic, in view that elephants in the wild are usually the most obvious moving objects in their habitat. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of eyes are watching almost every wild elephant at all times.
Unlike elephants in captivity, some of whom have been extensively harassed by humans, elephants in the wild often seem as unperturbed by human observers as by observers with horns, hooves, wings, or manes––so long as the humans remain well outside their “flight zone,” the distance from other beings at which animals feel safe.
“Don’t ask your mother for 50¢ to see the elephant jump the fence”
Buckley, however, preferred to avoid any compromise with the elephant exhibition industry, which she emphatically did not want the Elephant Sanctuary to become part of, even if the elephants were seen only from more than a quarter of a mile away.
Instead of admitting visitors to see the elephants in any manner, the Elephant Sanctuary introduced a live-streaming webcam in 1999, called the Elecam, added five more by 2004, and currently has 14 video cameras mounted on 11 towers scattered over the property, plus three webcams inside the elephant barns. Thousands of donors and other people interested in elephants visit the Elephant Sanctuary web site every day to watch the elephants amid the eastern hardwood forest and rolling hills of Tennessee––which much resemble the Ghatts range in southern India.
Indeed, the Elephant Sanctuary property could almost pass for one of Buckley’s current working venues, Bannerghatta National Park, where wild elephants roam and sometimes venture into outlying Bangalore suburbs. Her fencing may in time prevent that source of elephant/human conflict.