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The Swannanoa Journal - Elephant Sanctuary

By Aundrea Kinney


Audio Recording



The tulip poplars were beginning to turn gold in the Tennessee mountains, and in the field below ambled three majestic elephants.  I sat on a grassy hill with ten others from Warren Wilson College listening to Steve Smith, Director of Animal Husbandry, tell us about the Elephant Sanctuary.

An elephant named Jenny retired to the sanctuary in 1996 after a tough circus-life.  Her leg was broken by a bull while on a breeding loan.  The wound remained untreated for a year while she remained with the bull.  She was then considered useless.  Life continued in a trailer with a different circus before she was left at an animal shelter for cats and dogs.  Soon after, the emaciated pachyderm was transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary where she was reunited with Shirley, an elephant that had been in the same circus as her when she was a baby.  Shirley mothered her as if she was her own before Jenny was abruptly traded away.  At their reunion they stayed awake all night, trumpeting back and forth with excitement and updating each other on the changes over the years.  They were inseparable until Jenny’s death in 2006.


Elephants live in a matriarchal society, staying together with the same group of females their entire lives.  They are social creatures, and after years of loneliness, those at the sanctuary create their own family groups. 


All the elephants at the sanctuary were rescued from a circus or zoo.  Several were confiscated by the U.S.D.A. due to inadequate treatment.  All are female, originally captured from the wild.  Like humans who have experienced extreme violence and neglect, many of the elephants have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Nine of the elephants at the sanctuary were sick when they arrived, having caught tuberculosis from human spectators.  Smith said, “People mean well, but they don’t always know how to mean well.” 

The Elephant Sanctuary helps elephants escape unfit environments by giving them new homes with plenty of room to explore.  The sanctuary’s 2,700 acres comprise the nation’s largest habitat for elephants.  They are licensed by the U.S.D.A. and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. 


The temperate forests of Tennessee are full of healthy plants the elephants can forage.  The African elephants especially enjoy pushing down tall pine trees and eating the bark and needles.  One elephant’s diet is supplemented daily by 150 pounds of hay and an assortment of locally grown fruits and vegetables.  Each elephant has her favorite foods. 


The Tennessee climate is colder than any elephant’s natural habitat so all of the elephants have access to a barn.  In the cold months, heat and blankets are provided, even to Shirley who only chooses to come inside on the coldest nights of the year.  Her friends on staff bring blankets and heaters to her wherever she is on the property. 


Back on the hill, several volunteers wonder why it would not be better to send the elephants back to their native lands.   Unfortunately, most elephants in Asia are now in captivity.  In Africa they are at risk of poaching and recapture.  For the abused elephants of the entertainment industry, the Elephant Sanctuary is their only hope for a semi-normal life, a life where they can make their own choices.


For more information or to learn how you can help visit www.elephants.com


 Photos by Aundrea Kinney.  All rights reserved.