Interview with Carol Buckley


Merlian News: Carol, how did you first become involved with this enormous project?

Carol Buckley: I was concerned for the future of my elephant Tarra. Tarra, aka Fluffie, is a female Asian elephant born in Burma, Asia. A local businessman in Simi Valley, Ca. purchased Tarra, and named her Fluffie. Fluffie spent the next year and a half living in the back of a delivery truck. She lived in the parking lot of a tire dealer store by day, and a single family residential home driveway by night. Shortly after Tarra’s arrival in the USA, the Asian elephant was declared an endangered species, and all future importation of Asian elephants into America was halted. [See The Tarra Story]

Merlian News: What is the hardest adjustment for the new arrivals?

Carol: They are all individuals so their reaction to captivity has taken different forms. For most zoo elephants the amount of physical freedom is daunting. For circus elephants, they have a hard time trusting that they will not be controlled or punished. What they all seem to have in common is the disbelief that their caregivers are so attentive to their needs.

Merlian News: What is the easiest one?

Carol: Again, they are all different so what is easy for one might be quite difficult for another.

Merlian News: What have you personally learned from working with elephants?

Carol: Compassion.

Merlian News: What is the most difficult part of this work?

Carol: Dealing with people who believe that the elephants have no right to live a protected life away from the prying eyes of the public.

Merlian News: We hear amazing stories about elephants who actually saved lives in the Tsunami disaster. Is this true?

Carol: I was not there and did not see it for myself, but over the past 30 years I have seen elephants show profound acts of compassion.

Merlian News: Do you believe elephants can pick up future events?

Carol: I know that elephants are intensely sensitive and perceptive. Our elephants are our weather forecasters; we know the approaching weather by their behavior.

Merlian News: Do you believe we can communicate telepathically with elephants?

***image2***Carol: I believe that humans have the ability to communicate telepathically with elephants but I think that most people don’t know how. When Tarra was young I wanted to test out the theory that elephants could receive telepathic communications. Being more than a bit skeptical I was prepared to disprove the notion. I formulated a thought in my head, telling Tarra, with my mind, in words, that I wanted her to turn towards me. I shared my experiment with a person versed in telepathic communications who told me that I was doing it wrong. I had formulated words in my head but this person informed me that telepathic communications are images; the message is sent in the form of an image.

Intrigued by this information I went back to Tarra and this time when I tried to communicate with her telepathically I saw an image of her in my mind, the image was of her turning around to face me. To my complete surprise Tarra, who was eating her dinner and paying no attention to me, suddenly stopped eating and abruptly turned in my direction. We both froze staring at each other.

I repeated this experiment several times over the next few months and in the beginning she responded each time, abruptly as if she was surprised but then a curious thing happened, she stopped responding. Perhaps it had to do with the image I was sending, telling her to do something. If she pretended she did not hear my telepathic communication she would not be scolded for not responding; pretty smart.

Merlian News: Why have you separated the Asian from the African elephants?

Carol: Out of respect for the elephants we provide separate habitats. Their behavior and language are different and the two species would never mingle in the wild so we feel it is not appropriate for us to force them to live together in captivity.

Merlian News: Is there a difference between the Asians and the Africans?

Carol: Yes, they are completely different animals both physically and psychologically. One simple example of their behavior differences is their play and dominance behavior. When two African elephants play they are quite rough, hitting their heads and ivory in a huge display of power. If two Asian were to interact in the same way it would be out of dominance or aggression. You can imagine how distressing it would be for an African who wants to play and the Asian who reads the behavior as aggression. Yes, of course they could learn to understand each other, but why would you want to create a situation that causes such undue stress?

Merlian News: Elephants seem to be very emotional. Is this true?

Carol: I consider elephants a walking body of emotion. Their lives revolve around relationships which are continually deepening.

Merlian News: What is the first thing these elephants are given when they arrive at the sanctuary?

Carol: Freedom of choice. Upon arrival to the Sanctuary, the elephants are allowed to disembark from the trailer in their own time. From the moment of their arrival they are shown that they will make all of the decisions in their life from now on.

Merlian News: What is passive control? And how does this work?

Carol: Passive Control is a system that we developed to care for our elephants. The goal is to cultivate a mutually respectful relationship between elephant and caregiver. It employs positive reinforcement and enlists the elephant’s cooperation. Giving the elephant the freedom to choose, knowing they will never be punished, creates an environment of trust and eventually mutual respect. Elephants respond miraculously to this system.

Merlian News: When elephants are unrelated are they able to form a herd?

Carol: Elephants are highly social, they form lifelong bonds with other elephants regardless if they are related or not.

Merlian News: Why are large spaces so very important to elephants?

Carol: Elephants are migratory; it is natural for them to walk 30-50 miles each day. Their body and mind are designed for an active life in a diverse habitat. Depriving elephants of their natural need and desire to roam a large space causes them stress and shortens their life.

Merlian News: Is it true that an elephant never forgets?

Carol: An elephants memory capacity is 12 times that of a human, indeed they have the capacity to remember an incredible volume of information. Memory is one of their attributes.

Merlian News: Can you briefly describe your holistic approach to care and what methods you have used with success?

Carol: Our holistic approach to care encompasses facilities, philosophy of management and approach to medical care. It starts by allowing each elephant the opportunity to make her own choices, excludes any use of dominance or control by caregivers, and provides a safe environment where elephants can recovery from the traumas they have experienced in captivity. This method of management has proven successful with each elephant that has come to the Sanctuary.


Merlian News: Carol can you summarize the Hawthorn situation at this time?

Carol: The Sanctuary has offered to accept all 12 Hawthorn elephants when our new construction is complete in September. All 12 elephants are currently at the Hawthorn barn in Illinois.

Merlian News: How can we the public really help with your wonderful work with these magnificent animals?

Carol: Educate yourself regarding this species to learn why they should never be confined to small spaces as in zoos and circuses, and champion for their release to sanctuaries.

For more information visit The Elephant Sanctuary Website at

by Merlian News
Carol Buckley is cofounder, president, and executive director of The Elephant Sanctuary. Carol has over 30 years' experience in the care and management of elephants. Carol has an extensive background in developing elephant management programs and providing animal medical care. In 1995, Carol co founded the nation's first natural-habitat refuge for sick, old, and needy endangered Asian elephants with her elephant, Tarra. She is a well-known speaker on the subject of elephant care. Carol attended the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, and she is licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.