Visiting the Elephant Sanctuary

By Deirdre Healy

October was Elephant Awareness Month in Tennessee because of the efforts that the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald has made toward improving the lives of elephants throughout the world. 

Interestingly enough, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the sanctuary in October.   The Tennessee sanctuary has volunteer days about once a month.  Kathy, Marissa and I traveled from Massachusetts to Hohenwald, TN for a long weekend so that we could work outdoors one Saturday for the benefit of “the girls,” as the elephants are lovingly called. 

The sanctuary houses 15 female Asian and African elephants.  Most are Asian elephants.  There are only 2 African elephants.  Apparently it is natural for female elephants to live together.  In the wild, they live in matriarchal herds.  Male elephants, by the time they reach the age of 20, spend most of their time alone.

Elephants are highly social, sensitive, playful, intelligent animals.  There are about 600 elephants living in captivity in the United States in zoos, circuses and sanctuaries.  The majority are used to provide entertainment in circuses and zoos.  The Elephant Sanctuary  in Tennessee has been developed specifically to provide a place where traumatized elephants can recover from the debilitating experience of captivity.

Circuses can be grueling for elephants.  Their sensitive skin is hit with bull hooks to “train” and control them.  They endure long trips in small, confined spaces which can cause long-term problems with their feet and legs.  Wild elephants normally walk close to 20 miles a day.  Being cramped in small zoo enclosures or daily trips in small containers for the circus is torture for them.

Coming to the Sanctuary is a blessing for the elephants and the caregivers.  The girls, after living in very difficult conditions that are not natural for them, come to this Sanctuary comprised of 2,700 acres.  They are free to roam; something they had not experienced before.  Elephants communicate very well.  The caregivers, while working hard throughout the day for the girls, report that they often have heart-touching communication with them.  The girls communicate through noises such as squeaks and rumbles, as well as their actions.

Since this is a Sanctuary for elephants, freed from the abuse they suffered at the hands of humans, they are not there for our entertainment.  The volunteers will only see an elephant by accident.  We spent our volunteer day moving about 300 bales of hay in the enormous barn and doing barn clean-up.  Other volunteers painted and caulked a barn.  Sometimes volunteers paint the fences or remove barbed wire from some fencing. 

The day before we worked at the sanctuary, we toured through the National Park in the area and went to the Meriwether Memorial (for Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame).  As we approached the memorial’s log cabin, we discovered a dog that was clearly in distress.  We took him to the veterinarian and got him fixed up (shots, neutered, etc.).  He was healthy and the only long-term issue he had was blindness in one eye.  We named him Meriwether.  With 27% unemployment, there is a lot of poverty in rural Tennessee.  The local shelter was full and if we did not take him, the only option was to have him euthanized.  We took him home to Massachusetts with us.  He was here for less than a week when we found his new adoptive family. 

Animal abandonment is a big problem in Hohenwald.  Cats and dogs are left at the elephant sanctuary.  In fact, if you get the chance, go to and search on “Tarra and Bella” where you’ll find a variety of video clips on the relationship between Tarra the elephant and Bella the stray dog.  They became friends several years ago.  Bella had been abandoned and was discovered guarding a bulldozer.  Bella liked guarding large noisy things and became attached to Tarra.  Tarra was very happy about her new friend and they have been inseparable ever since.  Even when Bella was injured, Tarra stood outside of Bella’s recovery room every day (Tarra had never stood outside that building before) until Bella was able to return to the sanctuary.

The Elephant Sanctuary is a wonderful place with a worthwhile mission helping this endangered species.  For more information, go to

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