By Marisa Shea, R.N.
There have been many changes in the year since my friends and I last participated in a volunteer day at The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in Hohenwald, Tennesse. Heavy flooding last May left parts of TES damaged, and although the elephants were unharmed, significant repairs were needed. The ongoing treatment of elephant Liz, suffering from tuberculosis (TB), remained a high priority.
It was with a feeling of trepidation we arrived at TES. The Sanctuary is currently home to 14 elephants, most of them having arrived at TES after decades of performing in circuses, and their welfare had been foremost on our minds as we made the trip from Boston to Hohenwald.
The moment we arrived at TES I knew my feelings of concern for the elephant’s welfare had been misplaced. TES was as clean and well maintained as ever, the grounds still full of life under the hot sun. The Sanctuary dogs ran about, keeping a close eye on our group of volunteers as we proceeded to unload a tractor trailer full of bales of hay, enough to feed one elephant for one year.
Lunch was eaten outside on the deck behind the small ranch style house that serves as the headquarters for the Sanctuary. We were joined by Scott Blais, co-founder, and in charge of the daily operations. Scott readily answered our questions about the Sanctuary, commenting on the recent flooding and delighting in passing on anecdotes about the elephants. He clearly knows and loves every elephant under his care. We were later joined by other caregivers; all equally enthusiastic about the direction TES is headed.
My questions for Scott focused on TB in elephants. TES has strict controls in place for the monitoring, treatment, and protection of the elephants and staff. As a nurse who has cared for people with TB, I was very favorably impressed with Scott’s knowledge of the disease and its progression.
In my opinion, TB is a prime reason to keep your children away from the circus. The mycobacterium tuberculosis that causes TB in humans also causes it in elephants, and transmission of TB between humans and elephants is a fact. TB is airborne, spread on the droplets from our respirations. Liz, a one time resident of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire, and later leased out to circuses by the Hawthorn Corporation, is currently being treated for TB. Her prognosis, like that of all elephants with TB, remains uncertain.
Our volunteer group consisted of TES supporters from across much of the US, and we often see the same people every time we visit to volunteer. The afternoon was spent painting the fences that divide the sanctuary into fields. The temperature was 91 degrees, the sun beat down on us, and we happily painted away, oblivious to the insects and the scorching metal of the fences. We had a distant view of a pair of elephants, Lottie and Minnie, munching contentedly in a field under the branches of a large shade tree.
Sunday morning, as we readied ourselves for the trip home, we were greeted with sad news. Lottie, seen in all her stately majesty the day before, died suddenly. She was only 47 years old. Her passing stunned the TES community. Lottie had no known health problems, and her necropsy results are pending as of this writing. What can never be answered is how much the toll of Lottie’s years in the circus had on her long term health.
TES is the nation’s largest natural habitat refuge for endangered Asian and African elephants. TES operates solely on donations. This is a wonderful organization – one that is always looking for volunteers! The experience will change your life!
Please go to www.elephants.com to learn more and for more information on how you can help!