An Elephant's Tale In Tennessee


There is a place for circus and zoo elephants to go after they retire. It's in rural Tennessee. And Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist was able to go where no visitors had ever been before.

This is an elephant's tale.

Dulary lived in Philadelphia, where she put in 43 years at the zoo employed as an exhibit, never missing a day, but was laid off this year. There was a retirement party where her friends came to say their goodbyes.

But where would Dulary retire? Elephants don't have 401(k)s and a choice of retirement communities. There's really only one that's exclusively for pachyderms: the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Started in 1995 by Carol Buckley and her partner Scott Blais, it has grown to 2,700 acres, a place where elephants can literally run wild - although, being a retirement home, they usually walk. It is something of an elephant paradise.

"What we try to do is just give them autonomy, give them their lives back," Blais said. "And we don't use chains. The only confinement we have is the barn and it's their decision to come in the barn. We give them as much freedom and flexibility in their own life, freedom of who they hang out with, where they can go. You know if they dislike their keeper that comes into effect also, and we try to accommodate them."

And do they ever. The level of service is five-star quality. If the elephants don't feel like hoofing it back to their new luxury barn, food and beverages are delivered to them.

"We bring it out on a four-wheeler wherever they are because we don't want to dictate their movements," Buckley said.

There are spa cuisine and spa treatments like apple cider vinegar footbaths. And the elephants don't ever have to perform or entertain. The public isn't even allowed in to look at them except by Webcam. The site got 40 millions hits last year.

"We run the risk of one, disturbing them by bringing in people," Buckley said, "And two, of impacting them on a social level."

Co-starring with Dulary in this elephant's tale is Tarra. Tarra had a brilliant career in show business, where she was huge (and still is, weighing in at 8,700 pounds). Buckley was her owner-manager.

"She and I went on the road and performed in the circus for about 15 years," Buckley said. "Classic traditional elephant act; runs around circle then lays down, plays a harmonica, all those silly tricks. In fact, she was the world's only roller skating elephant."

She was on TV and had a guest spot on "Little House on the Prairie."

"When Tara was little she liked it," Buckley said. "But as she got older it was not so much fun. I really didn't want to be with an unhappy elephant."

Tarra was ready to hang up her skates.

"I just started thinking, do elephants have to live in these traditional environments in zoos and performing in circuses?" Buckley said. "Isn't there something else? And after about a ten-year search I realized there was nothing else."

"First bought the property, it was 112 acres," Blais said.

"We moved on the property in March 1995 and that was when the first elephant set foot on the property. That was Tarra," Buckley said.

For the elephant's sake, Buckley and Blais moved with her to rural Tennessee.

"A lot of people don't realize that middle Tennessee is sub-tropical," Buckley said. "High humidity, lots of water, lush vegetation, long growing season, temperate climate - all that is quite suitable for the Asian elephant."

Since they're matriarchal, they live in large groups of relations. But they have a best friend. Each one has a best friend.

Like Winky and Sissy - they're best friends. Or Shirley and Bunny. Tarra has come alone to visit the pair, but Tarra won't be alone for long.

Nor would Dulary, who early one Philadelphia morning left her solitary confinement, boarded her private 18-wheeler and hit the road.

No one makes elephant seat belts yet, but this custom elephant trailer was fitted with safety bars to hold passengers in place.

The crew, Blais from the sanctuary and Jen and Chris from the zoo, made frequent stops to fill up. They still refuse to serve elephants in most restaurants, so Dulary had to eat in the truck. She seemed to be enjoying the ride.

"Perfect, couldn't be better. She is so calm," Blais said. "At this point she's perfect, absolutely amazing."

It's tough to find motels that allow large pets, so Dulary had to sleep in the truck in a Wal-Mart parking lot. After 19 hours on the road, Dulary's ride finally pulled into the elephant sanctuary.

Where Tarra came running to greet the truck, it was as though she'd been waiting all these years for Dulary to arrive.

But Dulary wouldn't get out. Perhaps she didn't want to get involved in a new relationship. She'd been hurt before - poked in the eye with a tusk.

They tried everything to coax her out … for more than four hours, nothing worked, until Tarra sashayed over.

Their trunks touched.

And these new best friends, Dulary and Tarra, lived happily ever after (so far). In this pachydermal paradise, two retired immigrant elephants from Southeast Asia found each other in the hills of Tennessee.