Animal Odd Couple in Custody Battle

An update now, to one of CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman's most popular stories. It's drawn more than 6 million views online. The story made people smile. That is until the lawyers got involved.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesseeis home to 14 elephants including what is now the most famous elephant in the world: Tarra - known, not so much for anything she's done, but for the company she keeps. Bella's a stray dog, who just wandered on the property.

Tarra and Bella are still best friends. Unfortunately, the humans in their lives aren't getting along nearly as well.


(Scroll down to watch the video.)

Over the past year there's been a huge falling-out between the Sanctuary Board of Directors - and the Sanctuary founder and former president Carol Buckley.

Animal Odd Couple, Pt. 1
Animal Odd Couple, Pt. 2

The Sanctuary Board of directors fired Buckley a few months ago. It's hard to get a straight answer as to why. Buckley claims she was never told why and the Board says it can't say why -- for legal reasons. Regardless, Buckley is now suing for unlawful termination, defamation, and in a legal first, elephant visitation rights.

Buckly wouldn't talk to us on camera, but her attorney, Noah McPike said, "Carol will be the first to admit that Tarra is like her child."

Buckley got Tarra when the elephant was a year old. She trained it - even taught it how to roller skate. They travelled the country performing and for 20 years were inseparable. Even after Buckly started the Sanctuary in 1995, she would still go out and visit Tarra regularly.

"And now to have that bond suddenly broken, it's harmful to the elephant," McPike said.

"We need to remember that the elephants are not anyone's pets," said William Schaffner. Schaffner is the new president on the Sanctuary Board.

"We're interested in the elephants being as free from human interaction as possible and that's been the philosophy of the sanctuary from the beginning," Schaffner said.

He's right. In fact, before she was fired, Carol told me herself, many times, that elephants don't need human interaction.

"Not only do they not need it. It's important that we don't do that," Buckley said.

That's why they rarely allow visitors - no matter who you are.

"We don't go out on the Sanctuary grounds," Schaffner said.

"You're not allowed out there?" Hartman asked.

"No," he replied. "They are their own intelligent social creatures that interact with themselves."

Again, he's right. They've never had a case where an elephant has shown any long-term signs of missing a human.

So what makes Carol think Tarra is any different? Exhibit - Bella.

Buckley's attorney will argue that Tarra is unique among elephants - that obviously, her ability to love extends beyond the boundary of species -- and that if somehow you could get inside Tarra's head - you'd see that this an elephant -- with humanity.

There is one thing that both sides agree on -- that the sanctuary continues to do tremendous good and deserves continued support.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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