In her battle to be reunited with the elephant she raised, Carol Buckley built a world-class sanctuary in South Georgia

Elephant Refuge North America opened last year, but it still awaits its first arrival

Carol Buckley elephants
Carol Buckley with Tarra at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995.

Photograph courtesy of Carol Buckley

One sunny morning in 1974, when Carol Buckley was 20, her German shepherd began barking at the bay window of her rental house in suburban Simi Valley, California. Buckley looked out to see a man walking a baby elephant down the street on a rope. She blinked. Then she ran outside and chased him down. The man, Bob Nance, boasted a mini-menagerie at his tire shop and had purchased the six-month-old Burmese elephant as his star attraction. Just three feet tall, with a scruffy tuft of hair on her head like an Old English Sheepdog, the calf was named Fluffie.

Buckley was studying exotic-animal management at the nearby Moorpark College, and she began showing up daily at Bob’s Tire Center. She wasn’t exactly summoned, but Nance didn’t complain. Buckley mucked the small truck where Fluffie lived, protected her from taunting kids, and fed her from a bottle. When Buckley arrived each morning, Fluffie would take her long, strong trunk, grab Buckley’s nose, and exhale, greeting her like she would another elephant. Soon, Buckley was driving Fluffie back to her own house at night, backing the truck up to the window so they could see each other when Buckley was inside. At the time, she didn’t know much about elephants, but she figured she could do better than Bob Nance, who eventually hired her as Fluffie’s caretaker. She read books and consulted her professors and the local vet. After a few months, Buckley quit school to spend all her time with her ward.

Two years later, with the help of her parents, Buckley secured a $25,000 loan to purchase the animal, renaming her Tarra, a name she found “exotic and grand.” For Buckley, who had one short-lived marriage at 24 and never had children, Tarra became her family. She thought they would be together for the rest of their lives.

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Buckley at her new elephant refuge in Georgia.

Photograph by Matt Odom

On a recent bluebird January day, Buckley bumped along at the wheel of a camouflage Kawasaki Mule on a red clay road in the most southwestern reaches of Georgia. The old farm is not unlike those around it, a mix of rolling grasslands, carefully culled pines, gnarly live oaks, and meandering paths to spring-fed streams and ponds. Buckley pointed out whitetail deer, wild hogs, and goldfinches that darted from the tawny brush.

“And when you get down there,” she sang, motoring toward Little Attapulgus Creek, “it’s just heaven for elephants.” The fields made way for hardwoods and a cool, boggy streambed. She sprung from the Mule and opened her arms wide and smiled, closing her eyes and inhaling like a blissed-out yogi. A tiny stick hung in a tangle of her long, fine, sandy-colored hair, a souvenir from a bushwacking gallop down a hillside. The calm lasted only a moment. The Mule was stuck in the mud. After Buckley exerted considerable revving and pushing, the tour continued on foot. At 65 years old, the diminutive Buckley, with a tanned complexion that shows little wear for a lifetime spent outdoors, still clocks a brisk pace.

On these 850 acres in Decatur County near Attapulgus (population 449), Buckley has created a refuge for retired circus and zoo elephants, nearly 25 years after she founded the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee with a similar mission. That nonprofit, located southwest of Nashville, rescued 24 elephants and grew to 2,700 acres and assets of well over $20 million under Buckley’s tenure before a great rift formed between her and the board of directors and she was ousted in 2010. She lost her job, her home, her life’s work, and Tarra. So here she is, starting all over again, with plans to get her friend back.

Less than a year after being booted from the Tennessee operation, Buckley launched Elephant Aid International, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of captive pachyderms in Asia. Since then, she has traveled overseas as much as half the year, working with NGOs and governments in Nepal, Thailand, and India to improve the habitats, healthcare, and treatment of elephants used for work and tourism, while raising money and searching for the perfect U.S. property for a new refuge and headquarters. On her list of requirements: hundreds of rolling acres with shade and meadow, abundant grasses and forage, and a subtropical climate, all to mimic the native habitats of Asian elephants. Southwest Georgia fit the bill, and she closed on the property for $2.4 million in 2016.

EAI has functioned mostly with a staff of one and thousands of supporters, including hundreds who followed Buckley in the split with the Tennessee sanctuary, many of whom now make up EAI’s board and advisory council. After all, it was she who dreamed up that first Tennessee haven 25 years ago and started it using her own money, with Tarra as its founding resident. Along with her one-time romantic partner and cofounder Scott Blais, she oversaw every aspect of the facility. But by 2009, complaints about her management style, squabbles over spending, health scares, and the death of a caregiver had turned the organization into a cesspool of feuding factions.

Now, down in South Georgia, 60,000 feet of specialized steel cable fencing encloses the habitat for Buckley’s latest endeavor, Elephant Refuge North America, an initiative of EAI. Crews of contractors and volunteers helped clear the land, cut out the old cattle fencing, and removed downed trees. Buckley herself can get lost in the quiet satisfaction of pulling a bush hog, and savanna-like grasses have sprung up in place of brambles. There’s a 5,000-square-foot barn with infrared heating and soft estuary sand dug four feet deep to cushion the pachyderms’ platter-sized padded feet. All told, the compound, which was completed in March 2019, cost $3.75 million, all from donations. Live-streaming cameras across the property allow the public to view as many as 10 rescued and retired elephants, otherwise largely free from the human gaze, roaming the pastoral grounds, splashing in the ponds, trumpeting to their friends and family.

But for now, all viewers see is trees swaying in the wind. As yet, there are no elephants at the Elephant Refuge North America.

Carol Buckley elephants
Buckley doing homework and babysitting the orphaned one-year-old Tarra (then Fluffie) at Bob’s Tire Center in 1974.

Photograph courtesy of Carol Buckley

The elephant, both Asian and African species, is among the world’s most intelligent creatures. They exhibit sophisticated emotions and behaviors like altruism, grief, and cooperation, and have been seen helping each other up muddy banks or spraying dust on a companion’s wounds. The animals’ hippocampus, which is linked to emotion and memory, is especially large, thus the saying “an elephant never forgets.” Their families, led by a matriarch, may be the most closely knit in the animal kingdom, with familial females spending their entire lives together. (Most captive elephants are female; bulls periodically enter “musth,” when heightened testosterone can make them aggressive, so adult males tend to lead more solitary lives.) When a loved one dies, elephants may perform funeral rituals, touching the body softly with their feet, carrying away the bones, or covering them in leaves and grass. In 1999, retired circus elephants Jenny and Shirley, who hadn’t seen each other in more than two decades, were filmed reuniting at the Tennessee sanctuary. So eager were the pair to touch that they bent the thick steel bars separating them on the first night. Elephants have shown similar affection for companions of other species, including humans.

There are around 300 elephants in zoos in the U.S., and perhaps 70 owned by circuses, but public opinion about holding these complex creatures captive has evolved since the days when a tire shop could legally house a pachyderm as a mascot.

Circus elephants spend much of their time confined in trucks or chained in stalls, forced to obey or suffer the bullhook, a notorious baton with an end like a fire poker. In 2016, after decades of protest and a slew of local laws prohibiting elephant acts, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the nation’s largest circus, retired its elephants to a company reserve in Florida. Since then, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and California have banned elephant circus acts altogether.

Conditions for zoo elephants have improved over the past two decades, most significantly since the Association of Zoos & Aquariums started requiring exhibits to house at least three elephants (in correspondingly larger habitats) in order to be accredited. Last year, Zoo Atlanta opened its expanded exhibit, the Zambezi Elephant Center, and introduced Msholo, an African male from the San Diego Zoo, to its two females, Kelly and Tara. Still, elephant populations in zoos are dwindling; the animals’ record of breeding in captivity is dismal and capture from the wild is highly controversial. Faced with new AZA directives, some institutions are phasing out exhibits, while others stay open without accreditation, housing solitary elephants in cramped conditions, a depressing fate for the biologically social, roaming animal. The AZA also has banned the routine use of bullhooks by 2023. AZA-certified zoos contribute millions of dollars each year to the conservation of wild elephants in Asia and Africa, where the animal is threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Still, some experts now question whether elephants belong in zoos at all, even as many zoos are enjoying record attendance.

Buckley, for her part, wishes to partner with zoos rather than clash with them. Equal parts realistic and quixotic, Buckley ultimately views the sanctuary model as a transition to a day when elephants live only where nature intended—in the wild. When she founded the Tennessee sanctuary, it was the first of its kind in the U.S. In the beginning, she just wanted a home for Tarra.

Settled in the living room of her spare Georgia farmhouse on the new refuge grounds, Buckley recalled her saga with Tarra. She has lived on the property for three years, but the room was empty except for a few mismatched chairs and Nepali trinkets. Moving boxes were still stacked against the wall. “I didn’t realize I was going to have to create the place that would be good for her,” she said. “I thought, On my journey, I’m going to turn a corner and, oh, here’s a great place for elephants. And then I realized, Oh, there is no great place for elephants. Nobody has done that, so I’ve got to do it myself.”

After she launched the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, it didn’t take long for the other elephants from small zoos and traveling circuses to arrive, many bearing scars, fears, injuries, disease, or even old ankle chains, and they thrived in their newfound freedom and friendships. As president and CEO, Buckley oversaw the retirement of two dozen elephants, including the first rescue confiscated by the USDA and another eight stripped at once from the Hawthorn Corporation, a provider of circus elephants. The sanctuary prompted widespread discussion about improving the animals’ lives in captivity, and Buckley’s work was recognized by National Geographic and Oprah.

But Buckley’s 45-year career with elephants didn’t start in animal welfare. It began under the big top.

Carol Buckley elephants
On wheels for a photographer at Buckley’s property in Ojai, California, in the early ’80s.

Photograph courtesy of Carol Buckley

Buckley grew up one of six in Orange County, California, at the edge of a post-war housing tract backing up to acres of fields. As a child, she trained German shepherds and collected chickens, geese, and rabbits. At community college, she met a guy who worked at a nearby wild animal amusement park. He asked her out on a date. She agreed to go if he would introduce her to his boss. After an informal visit, the park director offhandedly invited her to “come back any time”—and she did. Every day for months, following the dolphin and sea lion trainers like a shadow. The director eventually convinced her to apply to Moorpark.

Just a week after she enrolled, baby Tarra lumbered into her life.

Buckley began teaching her tricks. This was the land of Disney, and regional theme parks dotted seemingly every corner of the state. Traveling carnivals with whirly-gigs and acrobats and top hat–wearing tiger trainers pulled their trucks from town to town. Buckley and Tarra’s first job was with Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara—now California’s Great America—where they landed a two-year contract. Buckley rented a 10-acre place nearby for them to live.

Theirs was a classic circus routine. Tarra would dance on a tub (“ba ba ba,” Buckley demonstrated, straightening her back and putting her hands through a little cha-cha), play the xylophone, waltz, wiggle the hula in a grass skirt. Maquillaged and sporting Farrah Fawcett locks and a tight leotard, Buckley conducted the performance with a tap here and there of a fiberglass wand. The duo were famous for strapping on roller skates—both of them. The pair took their act all over the country and Canada, living and sleeping together in Buckley’s trailer, Buckley in a tiny cubby over the gooseneck and Tarra in the custom-built bed.

Buckley insisted that for a time, when she and Tarra were young, they both enjoyed performing. “She was a kid,” she said. “The more people would cheer, the sillier she would get. She’s hyper—like me.”

In the late ’70s, the pair moved out to a sunny canyon in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. They bathed in the deep pools of the Ventura River, wandered trails, and curled up to rest under ancient oaks. By then Tarra was doing some studio work. She appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, and Carol Burnett rode on her back in the final medley of Annie. She delivered the envelope with the winner for “Best Costume Design” at the 57th Academy Awards when A Passage to India was nominated. But travel was becoming arduous. Circus stunts began to feel cheap. Tarra was growing up—and Buckley was growing with her.

“It was a hard life,” says Buckley. “Tarra had fun when she was little, but as she started physically getting bigger and her maturity level was changing, her likes and dislikes were shifting. I felt like every day, I went to bed going, Okay, I’ve learned this much about her. And then the next day, Okay. I’m learning more. Learning more. She was forever changing. She was growing all that time, and I was like three steps behind her every time, trying to stay up with her. She was 10 in 1984, and I said, That’s it. No more circus.”

Given that elephants can live for decades—70 years or more—Tarra was still an adolescent. For years, they tried zoos, offering Tarra as an attraction and Buckley as a caregiver. At the Racine Zoo on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, Tarra bonded with a solitary female elephant, Rasha. With the blessing of the zoo director, Buckley planned an expansion and renovation of the habitat. During the construction, she moved the two elephants to a breeding center at a wildlife park near Toronto, hoping both would return pregnant. In Canada, Buckley met Scott Blais, who was then a 19-year-old elephant trainer, 20 years her junior. The two began dreaming about a better life for captive elephants and then—after striking up a romance—about a future together, too.

Tarra did become pregnant, but a new director at the Racine Zoo fired Buckley. With a baby elephant on the way, she and Blais had no trouble finding a new home at the Nashville Zoo. In 1994, Tarra delivered a calf. But after a difficult and frightening labor, the baby emerged with its lower body twisted and contorted from a crippling joint deformity called arthrogryposis. After about 20 minutes, the vet announced, “the baby is gone.” Tarra put one foot gently on the body, paused, then walked away.

“I just couldn’t accept it,” Buckley said. “I was really messed up over it. I was the one in mourning. I was sleeping in the barn with Tarra, and she’s going, Come on, it’s okay. She did great. She helped me through it.”

The vet assured Buckley that Tarra was young and could try again. But she told him, “I will never ever do that to her again.” After years of dreaming of a sanctuary for elephants, that was all the push she needed. Soon after, she used her savings to buy 112 acres and a house in rural Hohenwald, Tennessee, 80 miles southwest of Nashville.

“I don’t regret what Tarra and I have been through,” she said, “but I often think about, Oh, how fabulous would it have been if when I first met Tarra, I already knew everything I know now and she never had to do any of that. But that’s how I gained the knowledge and the experience to do what I am doing well.” And if Tarra had never been captured at all? “If she could have her life back? Oh, man. I’d give it all up in a minute.”

It has been five years since Buckley has seen Tarra, now somewhat beyond middle age, the subject of a bitter custody battle with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee that has shaken conservation and animal-welfare circles. The opposing parties met in court most recently last April to determine Tarra’s rightful and permanent home.

The events leading up to Buckley’s dismissal in 2010 had compounded over several years. In 1997, Buckley sold the property, including its improvements and her residence, to the nonprofit for her purchase price. Buckley and Blais lived together on the grounds, working around the clock, seven days a week, for no pay for years. But as the organization grew, Buckley found that, as president and CEO, she was managing staff—eventually as many as three-dozen employees—as much as caring for elephants.

“In many ways, we were a victim of our own success,” said Blais. “We grew exponentially. It could be chaotic.”

For Buckley, understanding elephants is easy. “Elephants are an open book completely,” she said. “They don’t hide anything, they don’t fake anything.” It’s humans who are hard. “People are quite confusing to me. I cannot read people at all.”

She was surprised when new, young staffers asked for Christmas vacation or pricey benefits packages. For her, the elephants always came first.

There was one employee whose commitment matched Buckley’s: caregiver Joanna Burke. The soft-spoken Massachusetts native’s devotion verged on obsession, to the point where she broke off a 10-year relationship and rarely left the grounds. Buckley saw Burke as her successor.

Burke had been at the sanctuary for eight years when, in 2006, she was bathing an elephant named Winkie, who had arrived six years earlier from a Wisconsin zoo with a reputation for violent behavior. Without warning, Winkie struck Burke with her trunk and stepped on her, killing her instantly. Blais was with Burke at the time and suffered bruises and a broken ankle trying to save her. Burke’s family agreed with Buckley that Burke would not have wanted Winkie euthanized. (Winkie lived until 2017.)

It wasn’t until the accident that Buckley learned Burke and Blais had become romantically involved. The relationship between the cofounders, already soured, turned toxic. Buckley and Blais wouldn’t speak without a mediator, and both attest many staffers sided with the young, affable Blais. Buckley admits to being an uncompromising manager. “They were afraid of me,” she says. “Absolutely.”

“For years, she said she did not belong managing people,” recalled Blais. “She has an incredible mind, an incredible spirit, but I think she doesn’t know when to step back.”

Not long after, Buckley found herself at odds with the board, opposing spending on a glossy elephant education center in downtown Hohenwald and over a tuberculosis outbreak that infected eight employees, though none fell ill.

In 2009, Blais threatened to quit, and the board placed Buckley on leave. Rejecting offers of lesser roles, she also refused to resign, then was fired in March 2010. Blais was persuaded to stay, although he left the following year, married another former staffer, and now works with elephants in Brazil.

Buckley was devastated and blindsided, she said. That October, she sued for wrongful dismissal, unauthorized use of her name and likeness, breach of contract, and defamation, seeking $1 million in damages and visitation rights with Tarra.

In February 2011, the sanctuary responded to Buckley’s allegations, asking the court to dismiss the suit and denying all charges. In a statement, it said, “Ms. Buckley created what workers described as a toxic work environment” and that she “neglected worker safety concerns.”

Donors, a board member, members of the advisory board, and even some staffers broke ties with the organization, pledging to follow her. “I was on the phone taking minutes for the board meeting when they announced they were removing her,” said Kate Elliott, who was the sanctuary’s managing director from 2006 to 2009 and is now a supporter of Elephant Aid International. “I was sick to my stomach. It was completely out of left field.”

Elephant experts from conservationists in Kenya to animal psychologists wrote letters to the board of directors in Buckley’s defense. One was Dr. Rob Atkinson, who at the time served as head of wildlife at Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “There is only one place I personally would want a captive elephant to live, and that is with Carol at the Sanctuary,” he wrote. “Carol has underpinned the Sanctuary’s work with a deep, ethically sound philosophy which gives it its strength. The elephants and the Sanctuary need Carol’s skill, heart, and wisdom. I have met elephant carers all over the world, and been one myself, but I have never met anyone like Carol.” That fall, Atkinson himself was hired as CEO of the Elephant Sanctuary. He resigned less than two years later and was succeeded by Janice Zeitlin, a Nashville art dealer who has been on the board since 2004. Zeitlin declined to comment for this story.

Following a dip in donations after Buckley’s departure, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has continued to thrive financially. In 2018, it raised more money than ever—nearly $10 million—and now has assets of almost $50 million and top ratings from Charity Navigator. Staff includes 20 caregivers, and it remains the largest natural habitat refuge for elephants in North America. The new Elephant Discovery Center, with its interactive exhibits, opened last year, bringing student groups and tourists to tiny Hohenwald; and the nonprofit’s distance-learning program reached more than 14,000 students in 26 countries in 2019. But over the past 10 years, the herd has shrunk to 11, with seven deaths and four arrivals.

Initially, Buckley believed the best place for Tarra was still the sanctuary, even if she could not live there with her. “If she were happy, why would I move her?” Buckley was granted a property inspection to visit Tarra; but that reunion was so traumatic for Buckley that she revised her lawsuit in 2014, dropping all other charges aside from custody of Tarra. During her next visit in 2015, she stayed in the car, watching Tarra from a distance. Now, she does not even watch Tarra on the EleCam. “The next time I see her, I’m bringing her home,” she said.

Litigation over Tarra drags on. In Tennessee’s Lewis County chancery court last April, Buckley testified that she has had concerns for Tarra’s well-being since her first inspection. Lawyers called on witnesses from wildlife officials to veterinarians to accountants, as well as Buckley, Zeitlin, and Blais, whom the Elephant Sanctuary flew in from South America. The most intense questioning revolved around Tarra’s bond with the sanctuary’s herd.

Tarra’s barn has recently housed Shirley, who was seized by Castro’s forces in Cuba, later survived a shipwreck, and at nearly 72 is one of the oldest Asian elephants in North America; Sissy, another Asian elephant who rejoined the herd in October after more than two years in tuberculosis quarantine; and, according to a sanctuary veterinarian’s testimony in the April trial (a sanctuary spokesperson denies a shared habitat), Nosey, an African elephant who has been at the sanctuary since 2017, though her custody is also currently being disputed.

“Tarra has a beautiful life at the sanctuary,” Blais said later by phone from Brazil. “Shirley adores her, and she adores Shirley.”

But Tarra’s closest companion for years was, in fact, not an elephant at all but a dog: a white stray named Bella, whom she preferred over any of her own species at the sanctuary. Buckley turned their story into a children’s book, which Dolly Parton selected for her book club, sending free copies to children around the world. (Tragically, a pack of coyotes later killed Bella, and Tarra carried her body back to the barn.)

On the third day of the trial, the jury ruled that Buckley did not irrevocably give Tarra to the sanctuary, and Buckley rejoiced quietly, making plans for her transport to Georgia. One month after the verdict was filed, the Elephant Sanctuary filed a motion for a new trial, and it was granted in September. A date has not been set, and Tarra remains in Tennessee.

One day last November, Buckley arrived in Sauraha, Nepal, a tourist town of a few thousand at the gateway for Chitwan National Park. Locals called out to her as she walked along the dusty streets. They emerged from souvenir shops and waved, beckoning to her by name from balconies. She hugged them all. “Namaste,” she said again and again in the customary greeting, smiling, putting her palms together in prayer and conducting quick, excited bows. She asked about their families and in some cases, their elephants, which are sometimes housed just out of view behind the cheap hotels and restaurants that line the streets, which hum with motorbikes, safari Jeeps, and livestock.

Visitors—mostly from Nepal and India and many from China, Germany, and Russia—come to Chitwan, in the grassy lowlands, hoping to spot the endangered one-horned rhinoceros and elusive Bengal tiger, and often, to ride an elephant. Wild elephants roam the surrounding forests, though they are considered mostly seasonal wanderers from nearby northern India. There are around 200 captive elephants in Sauraha, most belonging to hotel owners and others who offer tourist rides, and 60 or so that belong to the government. These government-owned elephants are a crucial part of the anti-poaching brigade, taking park rangers deep into the jungle to head off illegal hunters after horns, skins, and ivory. Buckley knows the creatures by name: Mel Kali, Sundar Mala, Ram Gaj.

In the decade since Buckley was removed from the sanctuary, she has focused on the welfare of captive elephants across Asia, establishing relationships with governments and private companies in Nepal, India, and Thailand. In these countries, captive elephants are used for work and tourist safaris and typically spend resting hours with their ankles shackled to a post, some unable to move more than a few inches.

In Nepal, where she has spent months each year, Buckley established Asia’s first chain-free corrals for working elephants in 2014, allowing more than 80 elephants to roam, graze, play, lie down, and socialize within solar-powered electric fences. This success story was covered by National Geographic, featuring video of elephants being released from chains and trumpeting, flapping their sail-like ears.

Buckley does not believe elephants should live in captivity at all, much less for the purpose of labor or entertainment for humans. But she recognizes that societies don’t change overnight. The initiatives of Elephant Aid International are intended to improve the health and living conditions of working elephants—and educate their owners and caregivers. This often deviates from cultural norms, with mixed success. Her biggest accomplishment in Nepal, she said, was working with the British-owned luxury ecolodge Tiger Tops, on the north side of Chitwan National Park, to release a dozen or so elephants into 18 acres of chain-free corrals. In 2015, the lodge ceased elephant-back safaris for tourists, instead offering jungle walks alongside the giants, where visitors can watch them in their seminatural state. Elephant tourism is big business in Nepal, and this, Tiger Tops and Buckley both attest, is a way to bridge the gap between local livelihoods and responsible tourism.

“Once one does it, they’ll all do it,” she predicted of the tourism industry. Reform has proved to be slow.

On this visit, as she does twice a year in Sauraha, Buckley was conducting a foot-care workshop to trim the elephants’ nails and treat their enormous padded feet for infection. A leading cause of poor health and even death among captive elephants is osteomyelitis of the feet, a bacterial infection of the bone thought to be caused by restricted movement and standing on hard or unclean surfaces.

Although it is the government—or the rich—who own the elephants, it is always the mahouts who care for them. A mahout, the lower-status profession of elephant caregiver, is paired with an elephant for years—or life— living alongside it, typically in a rudimentary hut, feeding it, cleaning its stable, bathing it, training it. Mahouts and their superiors, patchuas and phanets, “drive” the elephants, mounting them from their trunks and straddling their hulking shoulders, directing them by foot and stick as they patrol the forest or carry tourists. No one knows an individual elephant as well as her mahout.

Buckley knows many mahouts by name too—Rupesh, Ajay, Harindra, mostly men; they beamed when she recognized them. With help from a local friend, Shanti, whom she calls “a sister from another lifetime,” she spread the word to mahouts about her workshop, which offered free tools and a small stipend for their time spent away from other duties. And they came, on rickety bikes, on foot, aged 20 to 80, carrying little headshots for their applications, to Shanti’s corner market to sign up.

That first morning in Sauraha, Buckley started off on foot to make the rounds with a gaggle of glommers-on. There was Leslie PonTell Schreiber, a longtime friend from Moorpark College and an Elephant Aid International board member (and former board member at the Elephant Sanctuary), and Becky Dan, a member of the executive council, who was charged with taking photos and video of the activities and registering the mahouts. Other acolytes emerged: An intern from a nearby veterinary school who acted as a translator. Eventually, his entire class joined. Canadian park rangers in town for the annual World Ranger Congress, who heard Buckley speak at the conference over the weekend. A vet originally from Atlanta, who was Buckley’s first intern at the Elephant Sanctuary in 1995, who later moved to Sauraha and acquired an elephant in order to save her. Another from Switzerland, who had done the same—and both were working on initiatives for elephant walks for tourists.

The first stop was the main government-owned hattisar, or elephant house, where Buckley has worked many times before. The open shelters at the edge of the dense jungle house eight elephants, and they all stood in chains in the hazy morning mist, though many of the surrounding electric corrals were working. Buckley figured the fences had become a device for keeping wild bull elephants—as well as tourists—out of the stable. She wasn’t surprised. She knew elsewhere the corrals EAI established from 2013 to 2015 had been washed away during the monsoons and were never repaired. Five years after installation, nearly all of the park elephants were back on chains.

The new official in charge was out. Buckley would have to come back the next day. No amount of arguing or pleading succeeded. As an American woman, she faces an uphill battle with the officials in Nepal, she said, at one point calling out over a whizzing motorbike, “I kiss so much ass here it blows my mind.”

The entourage headed back to Shanti’s shop while Buckley furiously poked at her phone, chatted gaily with Shanti about fashioning a winter blanket for a thin, old elephant, sliced a pomelo for the group, and rounded up motorbikes for a visit to a privately owned hattisar. There, in a yard behind a low-slung jungle hotel, a crowd of mahouts in rubber flip-flops and EAI volunteers gathered for the foot-trimming lesson. “Where’s the clipboard?” she called, sending her aides scrambling. “What is the name of this hatti?” The intern-translator finds out the name of the elephant. “Where’s my sharpener?” Someone ran to get it. “Hold these. Don’t stab anyone with them.”

Buckley gently instructed the mahout to ask his elephant to lie down. He barked commands and the elephant complied, careening to the ground and curling her trunk into her head like a fiddlehead fern. The crowd closed in.

“Okay, everyone, take a step back,” she said. “We have to listen to the mahout. He knows the elephant.” Buckley, fiercely protective of the animal’s space, interacted with the elephants only as much as was necessary to treat their feet. She aches that they must endure the endless stream of unwanted petting, selfies, and rides demanded by tourists.

After documenting each foot by camera, she asked the mahouts to describe what they thought about the condition of her feet. Then she got to work. Like a surgeon, she used metal tools to cut and file the pads of the feet and nails, demonstrating and then passing the tools to the mahouts. She spouted off one-word Nepali instructions, working with the kind of urgency one might expect when dealing with a 7,000-pound creature on its side.

“Rasp.” “Knife.” “Krupa.” “Very good.” “This: Thulo. Too big.” “Beautiful.” Then quietly, to the elephant lying dutifully on the ground: “You’re okay, sweet girl.”

When she was done, the elephant’s mahout led her back to her shelter, where she stepped in and cocked her back foot slightly to allow him to affix her chain.

Carol Buckley elephants
In 2019, teaching mahouts in Nepal how to trim their elephant’s nails to prevent infection.

Photograph by Mary Logan Bikoff

Buckley’s mission in Georgia isn’t about just one elephant. She is in talks with a number of facilities in hopes of assembling a herd, or two. The elephants will be free to choose their friendships, to form new bonds and families. As with elephant-tourism companies in Nepal, she believes once she has convinced one, the others will follow. She had expected the first arrival to be Mundi, a solitary female African elephant at the now-defunct Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo in Puerto Rico. The island’s only zoo lost its license from the USDA in early 2017 and was further hampered by damage from Hurricane Maria later that year. A contract from the Puerto Rican government confirmed the transfer to ERNA, and much of Buckley’s early fundraising was dedicated to the effort, with lines like “Mundi’s yard is finished!” and “Help us finish the barn for Mundi’s arrival” blanketing the organization’s channels. But in December 2018, the Puerto Rican government backed out after a change in leadership. For now, Mundi remains in Puerto Rico, her fate uncertain.

Buckley has learned to say “in theory” a lot. But one thing is certain: She won’t be juggling staffers. She hired a third-generation animal keeper as the lead caregiver, whom Buckley and Blais met in Canada some 30 years ago. He will handle the day-to-day operations, and Buckley can continue her international efforts. Because like the complex creatures she fights for, Buckley needs space to thrive.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.