• Image about Tarra

Outside of a small rural town in Tennessee sits a 2,700-acre safe haven for pachyderms from around the world. It’s also a site of friendship, everlasting bonds and reunions.

Each morning, as the residents of Hohenwald, Tenn., begin their day, many will head to Main Street’s Buffalo River Coffee Company for coffee and conversation. A few people from this region have gained notoriety, like country comedienne Minnie Pearl and author William Gay. But mostly, Hohenwald is a typically quiet Southern town. That is, except for the elephants.

A few miles outside of town sits a very unusual wildlife refuge filled with retired circus and zoo elephants. At any time of day or night, neighbors may be treated to a bone-rattling blast from a trumpeting 10,000-pound beast.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is the only one of its kind to specifically offer a natural-habitat haven for old and sick elephants. Fifteen animals currently roam this subtropical landscape of forests and meadows, which is actually quite similar to their natural habitats. A staff of 24 works seven days a week to feed the animals, give them baths and treat any ailments.

Since most of the animals have lived their lives chained up and/ or in a small yard, their condition is often not the best upon arrival. Some suffer from diseases like tuberculosis and osteoarthritis. Posttraumatic stress is common. But after some time at the sanctuary, every animal adjusts to the pampered accommodations of what amounts to a free-range elephant spa.

Sanctuary elephants are exclusively female. Males don’t do well in captivity because of their size, strength and the hormonal changes that occur during musth season (they have a tendency to live alone in the wild). Females, on the other hand, are much more social and family-oriented. So as soon as a new tenant arrives, she seeks a bond with another — you might say she finds a BFF — and soon acclimates to the sisterhood.

The story behind the sanctuary begins in the 1970s, when Carol Buckley, a student at Moorpark College in California, looked up from her homework one day to see a tiny elephant walking past her house, promoting a local tire dealership. Buckley volunteered to help care for and train the baby elephant, who was then named Fluffy. Eventually, Buckley purchased the pachyderm and renamed her Tarra.

For the next 20 years, Buckley and Tarra toured the U.S. as an elephant act contracted to circuses, zoos and theme parks. One day at a show in Canada, animal activists gathered outside the venue, protesting the abuse of Tarra. Buckley went outside to see what was up.

“It was HSUS, which is the Humane Society of the United States,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about them. Their flyer said ‘Exploitive use of animals,’ and it showed Tarra on her roller skates — she was the world’s only roller-skating elephant. I couldn’t grasp that concept, how they might think that was abusive.

“That was a very important thing for me to experience,” she adds. “It was the first time that I had talked to anyone who was not anything but enthusiastic about what I was doing.”

Elephant keeper Scott Blais joined Carol and Tarra’s company in 1993, because he, too, was having second thoughts about elephants as entertainment.

“The last zoo we worked in was the Nashville Zoo,” Blais says. “We were hanging out with Tarra and making ourselves available to the public to answer questions. Here’s an elephant that’s grazing, foraging, swimming, eating produce, and the first two questions were ‘Can we ride her?’ and ‘Does she do tricks?’ It’s like, whoa. This is what we’ve done. It’s not about conserving the species. It’s about ‘What can she do to make me smile?’

“That’s part of why we decided we needed to do something more for elephants and change the education.”

The two formed a nonprofit organization, purchased 110 acres in the Tennessee countryside and opened the Elephant Sanctuary in 1995, with Tarra as the first resident. More elephants were gradually added, including both African and Asian species, and the facility expanded to its current 2,700 acres, with room for up to 100 animals. It is not open to the public.

Although it’s essentially an elephant’s luxury resort, with swimming ponds and three meals a day, this is also the final destination. Staff members bring flowers and photos for each elephant’s passing, and the animal is buried in its favorite location. Other elephants will often visit the grave and spend time there. Buckley and Blais have both seen elephants show up to mourn exactly one year later, on the anniversary of the death.

Reaction from Hohenwald citizens has been mixed. Some people love the idea of living next to an elephant sanctuary — hey, they were on Oprah! Others wonder exactly who these out-of-town people are who buy up all this land and don’t even let them see the elephants.

That will soon change, though, as the sanctuary is currently renovating two buildings on the town’s Main Street. Sometime in 2010 they will open a gift shop and welcome center, followed by a theater and education gallery to introduce people to elephants as well as to the facility and its mission.