BUCKLEY AND BLAIS suggest we go out for a short tour of the sanctuary. I hop onto the back of Buckley’s four-wheeler, and we set out on a bumpy dirt road into the Asian elephant sector. About half a mile away, two elephants, Winkie and Sissy, perk up at the engine sound and begin walking in our direction. Soon they’re running along the road behind us. And, I mean right behind us.
I know Buckley has decades of experience dealing with these creatures, but when the world’s largest land animal comes this close, snorting and making doglike barking noises while shaking the ground with every step, it’s so patently obvious how easily we could get stomped like a bug. A small, morbid part of me thinks, for many humans throughout history, this was the last image they saw.
Buckley whips our four-wheeler off the road and makes a large circle through the bumpy pasture. The elephants come to a stop, and one of them lifts its trunk and lets loose a magnificent trumpet/trombone sound that echoes off the pine trees.
As Buckley approaches the animals for some ear scratching and head patting, Sissy and Winkie excitedly bark and waggle their trunks. One even twirls around in a circle, like an overstimulated child on Christmas morning.
At the top of another hill we come upon two more elephants, Shirley and the aforementioned Tarra, standing motionless, lazing in the Tennessee sun.
At 64 years old, Shirley is the matriarch of the sanctuary. If this grizzled veteran could talk, she’d have a few whoppers to tell. She was briefly trapped on the island of Cuba when Fidel Castro seized control. She also survived a horrific fire on a circus ship docked in Nova Scotia, which left burn scars on her body. And one of her hind legs bends at a cruel angle, the result of an attack by another elephant years before she came to the sanctuary.
She deftly scoops up a clump of hay with her trunk and chews it thoughtfully, like a regal older woman snacking on bonbons. No need to get excited about our arrival. She’s pretty much seen it all.
Shirley also figures into one of the sanctuary’s more astonishing episodes. Several years ago, when she was first brought to the sanctuary, she met another elephant named Jenny; the moment the two came in contact, they began making all kinds of noises as they touched each other’s trunks, and, attempting to get closer, they tried to dig under and climb over the corral gate that separated them. After some research, sanctuary staff discovered that the two elephants had actually once performed in the same circus and had not seen each other in 23 years.
Perhaps the sanctuary’s most famous elephant, Tarra boasts a long résumé of show business credits, including films and TV shows like Annie, the Academy Awards and an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But recently she’s become known around the world thanks to a stray dog named Bella.
When the dog first appeared at the sanctuary, she dutifully began guarding a tractor — but once Bella saw Tarra, she shifted her focus to the elephant and began following her around. To everyone’s surprise, the two animals became best friends.
As if on cue, Bella appears and darts around and underneath the giant Tarra, accompanied by a cacophony of nonstop barking. There’s so much noise, I can’t tell whether the sound is coming from the dog or the elephant. Buckley tells me that it’s coming from both.
The level of trust between the two animals is amazing; the dog even lies down on its back as Tarra extends a monstrous front foot to gently scratch the dog’s stomach. It’s dumbfounding to witness. Buckley tells me that the two are inseparable. They play together, eat together and even sleep together in the same pile of hay. When CBS News did a segment about their friendship, the video went viral on YouTube and was seen by millions of people. A children’s book about Tarra and Bella written by Carol Buckley was released last year.
AS WE DRIVE AWAY, Tarra’s eye follows me. Nothing threatening, but she’s definitely watching me with interest. I ask Buckley how the elephants are able to pick up on human emotions. They obviously don’t express compassion in the same way we do, she says. But they are very attentive.
“If I’m in the midst of elephants,” she says, “and I’m feeling crummy — just having some emotional thing going on — invariably one will come over and touch me very softly. And I’ll say, ‘Well, whatever that was, I don’t know, but I appreciate it!’ ”