Earlier this year I read a few books about an elephant named Tarra. The first one I read was titled Tarra & Bella written by Carol Buckley. It’s a book about an elephant (Tarra) and the unlikely relationship she had with a dog named Bella at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. After reading it and learning about Tarra, Carol Buckley, and The Elephant Sanctuary, I had to learn more. I picked up Travels with Tarra, a book about Carol Buckley and Tarra before her life at the sanctuary, and Just For Elephants, another book about an elephant named Shirley who is retiring from a zoo and being moved to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. If you’d like to see my original reviews/posts on these, you can click on the titles below.
Tarra, an Asian elephant, was brought to America in 1974. Tarra was purchased to live at a tire store and the owner specifically purchased her in hope of increased sales. Not long after, Carol Buckley met Tarra for the first time. She instantly had an interest in Tarra and became a permanent fixture in Tarra’s cage.
Carol began studying her and wanted to know everything about her. As time moved on, Carol began training Tarra and believe it or not, Tarra became a performer in the circus. At one point, she learned how to roller skate! Because of her talent, she made multiple appearances in movies like Annie and even popular TV shows. If you’d like to see a video of Carol and Tarra from 1984, Click HERE.
In 1995, Tarra was moved to The Elephant Sanctuary, founded by Carol Buckley. It’s an Elephant retirement sanctuary where elephants can live as they are meant to, with other elephants, and in the wild. In the beginning it started as 200 acres and progressed to over 2,700 acres of land where elephants can roam and be free. Since then, other elephants have been moved there.
Carol has been working with elephants for over 40 years and has developed new standards of care for elephants in captivity. She is no longer with The Elephant Sanctuary and founded Elephant Aid International in 2010. She remains a protector of elephants in captivity and works to ensure that they are being treated humanly. Currently she is working in Asia with Mahouts (elephant handlers) and is helping them train elephants properly while keeping them out of chains. Carol has created multiple projects including:
- Chain Free Means Pain Free – A program that works to keep elephants out of chains.
- Elephant Foot Care – A program that helps owners and handlers understand elephant feet and the care they need to remain disease free.
- A New Elephant Refuge in Georgia called Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA) – A sanctuary for elephants to retire and live free.
- Programs to support and train Mahouts (Elephant Handlers) – Programs that help support Mahouts and their elephants by giving them tools, equipment, supplies and education for the care of their elephants. The training program uses Positive Reinforcement Target Training (PFTT) and teaches compassionate elephant training.
“Lack of space is the reason for most of the ailments that captive elephants are suffering from.” – Carol Buckley
Continue for my Q&A with Carol Buckley…
I was able to communicate with Carol Buckley to learn about her current work and developments with her projects. I’ve included my Q&A with Carol below and hope that you all enjoy learning more about her and her lifelong career with elephants.
My Q&A with Carol Buckley
Q: At what point in your life did you determine you wanted to study and work with elephants, and did you expect that it would be a lifetime career?
A: From the time I can remember I always wanted to be with animals. While in high school I had a backyard full of pets and soon started training dogs. My attraction to animals lead to being accepted into the exotic animal training program at Morepark College, CA. I always knew that I would work with animals.
Q: When you first met Tarra, what drew you to her and how did you eventually obtain her?
A: I was drawn to Tarra’s intelligence and curiosity. The day I met her I became her volunteer caretaker. I spent everyday with her. After nearly 2 years I purchased her.
Q: Personally, I was so amazed when I learned that you taught Tarra how to roller skate in Travels with Tarra. How exactly do you teach an elephant to roller skate? What other tricks did you teach Tarra?
A: Teaching Tarra to roller skate was easy, it really was not about me teaching her anything, it’s simply modified walking. The trick was to create the right design so her feet were secure. Tarra loved it. She was around 7 years old, a kid. We had a very strong relationship and I knew her very well. She is precious and curious and she trusts me. She was like an extrovert child who wanted to do everything, get into everything and skating was just another fun thing for her to do. Tarra did all the circus tricks you see other circus elephants doing. These tricks were easy for Tarra. She was young, a natural athlete, healthy and physically sound. She had so much energy and interest, I could not keep up with her. It seemed she was always looking for something new for me to teach her.
Q: I found it so heartwarming learning about your relationship and bond with Tarra. Would you say Tarra was the inspiration for your entire career?
A: Tarra is the inspiration for my entire life.
Q: Where did you obtain the knowledge to work with elephants?
A: I gained my knowledge with and as a result of Tarra.
Q: In the time you’ve spent with elephants, have you ever been in danger either from an aggressive elephant or other humans?
A: Anyone who spends time around captive-held elephants puts themselves in a degree of danger. Elephants are wild animals living in captivity, they can be dangerous. But fear of aggressive humans has always trumped my fear of elephants. Elephants are honest. They will clearly let you know if you are in danger. Humans, not so much.
Most elephants display a precursor before becoming overtly aggressive. Just like a person who bows up, makes an angry face, gets physically pushy, vocal or invades your personal space, elephants will warn in similar ways before they act out aggressively. But, in the case of elephants whose precursor has been disregarded, some captive-held elephants will by pass the warning and go straight to aggression. That is result of their past experiences where their warning, their precursor, was ignored. They learned not to use it because people did not respond to it.
Q: What are some ways elephants communicate about their emotions toward people? What are some of their behaviors that offer queues about how they feel about you or about how they are feeling at a particular time.
A: Elephants communicate the same way we do and more. They speak in verbal language and use body language. They “wear their emotions on their sleeve”, as the saying goes. If attentive, you will know how they are feeling by the way they stand, walk, talk, and interact with others.
Q: Do you have plans to write anymore books?
A: I have been asked to write more books and would like to, but right now I keep too busy to sit down and write.
Q: Why were you forced to leave TES and will it be permanent?
A: My departure from TES 7 years ago was not of my choice. To this day I have not received an explanation for the hostile Board take over. It is permanent.
Q: How is it that you can be forced to leave an organization that you founded?
A: Hostile Board takeovers are very common in the US. Non profit organisations are not owned by the founder, therefor the founder can be removed for any or no reason at all. The founder serves at the pleasure of the board.
Q: After you were ousted from TES, why is it that the board wanted to stop you from visiting Tarra? It doesn’t seem like that would be in Tarra’s benefit at all.
A: The explanation the Board gave for blocking me from seeing Tarra was that “Tarra needed to get her emotional needs met from other elephants.” Their decisions did not serve Tarra’s best interests.
Q: Tarra has been at TES for many years now. After learning about her best buddy Bella the dog in the book Tarra & Bella, and then Bella passing after, I wondered if Tarra ever did find a companion elephant?
A: Tarra has two companions at TES, Sissy and Shirley, but she has never bonded with another elephant at TES.
Q: How many elephants would you say you helped by opening these sanctuaries?
A: I have directly rescued 25 elephants to sanctuaries in the US; influenced change in the zoo and circus industries in the US affecting hundreds of elephant’s lives; and applied my sanctuary philosophy in Asia affecting hundreds of elephants and counting. It is a ripple affect.
Q:What is the reason for the sanctuaries being closed to the public or limited to just online live ele-cams?
A: Captive-held elephants are wild animals living in captivity. Forcing them to be on exhibit compromises them. They do not thrive in that environment. I do not feel it is appropriate to put human needs ahead of the elephants in our care.
Q: Earlier this year I learned about Ivan the shopping mall gorilla and how gorillas live longer in captivity, primarily in zoos. Is this true for elephants as well and are they more susceptible to any diseases when in captivity?
A: Not true of elephants in zoos, in fact research conducted by zoos nearly a decade ago proved that elephants live shorter lives in captivity, a research result the zoos did not expect. The research showed that Asian elephants live 60-70 years in the wild but an average only 42 years in zoos. African elephants fair much worse, their average life expectancy in a zoo is 17 years. Elephants have evolved in the wild, it is not foreign to them. Captivity kills them because they are kept in small spaces on exhibit, on hard surfaces that rot their feet, without appropriate social groupings. Elephants live miserable lives in captivity.
Q: What inspired you to start Elephant Aid International?
A: The two functioning elephant sanctuaries in the US had all but ceased to acquire elephants and there is a great need. Nearly 400 elephants live in zoos and circuses in the US alone. Change needs to continue.
Q: I can’t imagine the expense of caring for all the elephants, especially with all the land required. How do you fund these sanctuaries?
A: Sanctuaries are supported by individuals and companies, but mostly individuals who support the philosophy of sanctuaries.
- You can donate to EAI by visiting https://elephantaidinternational.org/donate/
Q: After learning about your work in Asia with teaching others how to train elephants humanly and out of chains, I started wondering exactly what is the main use of these elephants in Asia? Are they ever used for entertainment purposes?
A: All elephants in Asia are used for entertainment, either elephant back safaris, shows, feeding, selfies, and religious props.
Q: Are the mahouts/trainers receptive to your presence and teachings?
A: At first no, then when they get to know me and my agenda they are very supportive, even protective.
Q: Can you elaborate on your training techniques that have helped these mahouts learn to treat animals humanly without the use of physical abuse?
A: I simply expose them to a new and different way. Being very traditional and ancient cultures, these mahouts have never heard of or seen a different way. But seeing is believing and they are ready to change. I teach them just how smart their elephant is. That she/he will respond to a verbal command without abuse and will work willingly if trained with positive reinforcement instead of physical punishment.
Q: What made you decide to open another elephant refuge?
A: With the captive population of Asian elephants ageing there is a great need for retirement facilities.
Q: Are there any elephants at the new refuge ERNA?
A: Not yet, we need to complete the elephant fence around 850 acres and build the elephant barn before bringing in the first elephant.
Q: Where do you see ERNA in 10 years?
A: Peacefully housing 10 compatible elephants in or nearing their golden years and continuing to set an example of a more progressive way to manage elephants in captivity.
Q: Does ERNA operate on a strict volunteer basis or do you hire employees? How would someone go about getting employed at ERNA?
A: ERNA will have paid employees when elephants arrive. The best way to get noticed for an ERNA position is to volunteer on our volunteer days.
Q: How is the volunteer program progressing at ERNA?
A: Busy every weekend, and so much gets done!
Q: Who decided to create the “Unchained” documentary and when will it be released to the public?
A: Alex Rivera https://www.alexcrivera.com. I don’t know when it will be released to the public but it is making the film festival circuit now.
Here’s the trailer for “Unchained” Below: From https://www.unchainedmovie.net/
Q: How can people get involved in aiding elephants?
A: Lots of ways. Support orgs helping elephants; never go to places that exploit elephants by putting them on exhibit; sign petitions; educate yourself about the crisis facing this intelligent, social, exceedingly evolved species.
Q: Where can people get in contact with you? (Websites, social media, etc.)
I’d like to thank Carol Buckley for taking time out of her busy schedule to complete this Q&A.
If you’d like to add Carol Buckley’s books to Goodreads, click HERE.
To find Carol Buckley’s books on Amazon, click HERE.
Elephant Aid international is a member of the Asia for Animals coalition, a group of international NGOs advocating for animal protection issues across Asia. For more details please visit