Sanctuary: The Tarra Story

***image1***Imagine you are one of the lucky ones; one of the long-suffering elephants who finally roll up the driveway at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Once the truck doors open, it’s your choice; you may back out, or stay there for hours. No one will force you, or raise their voice.

What they will do is offer every treat known to elephants and finally you can no longer resist, and you step out into elephant paradise. And who will likely be the first elephant you will meet? Undoubtedly it will be the curious and loving Tarra, the sanctuary’s very first resident.

Tarra was there, when shy Jenny arrived in 1999. As the ele-diary recounts:

Jenny arrived at the Sanctuary and took her first step to freedom. Afraid and shy at first, she visibly relaxed when Tarra gently stroked Jenny’s head with her trunk and finally coaxed her to entwine trunks! Everyone watched through tears of relief and joy at this obvious display of comfort and love.

And when Shirley arrived at the Sanctuary that same year:


Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made “purring” noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part. This really happened. It also happened that Tarra did not want to share the watermelons with Shirley … but Carol made sure that Shirley got her fair share!

T arra, aka Fluffie, is a female Asian elephant born in Burma, Asia. In 1974, when Tarra was only 6 months old, she was prematurely weaned and separated from her mother when she was sold to an animal broker who imported her into the United States. Tarra was flown in a small wooden crate from Thailand to California by cargo plane. 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.

***image3***Carol Buckley, a first year student attending an exotic animal management course at a nearby college, learned of Fluffie’s existence. She became her volunteer caretaker. Within months Fluffie was no longer spending her days cooped up in the back of a delivery truck. Carol arranged for Fluffie to spend a limited time on exhibit at the tire store, a few hours each Saturday and Sunday. The remainder of the week Fluffie was housed away from the tire store under Carol’s care. By the time Fluffie was two years old, Carol, her full-time caretaker, purchased her and changed her name to Tarra.

For the next two decades, Carol and Tarra traveled throughout the world “entertaining” audiences in circuses, amusement parks, zoos, on television, and in motion pictures. When not performing, Carol and Tarra lived in the small mountain town of Ojai, California, on a private compound located in the Los Padres National Forest. In 1980, Tarra became the world’s only roller-skating elephant, a talent that served to display her intelligence, coordination, and grace. But it soon became apparent to Carol that although Tarra enjoyed playing on skates it sent the wrong message. Carol decided to retire Tarra’s skating routine and concentrated on a more educational presentation.

In more recent years, Tarra’s engagements were primarily in zoos where the emphasis was on education. Although very athletic, Tarra’s abilities were not limited to sports. In 1986, “Tarra originals,” custom watercolor artwork created by Tarra, were displayed at her hometown gallery. Since then, Tarra has been the featured artist at shows and galleries across the U.S. In more recent years, Tarra’s engagements were primarily in zoos where the emphasis was on education. ***image4*** In the summer of 1991, Tarra was successfully bred in Ontario, Canada. After a 22-month gestation period, Tarra began a very difficult labor that lasted two days and resulted in the delivery of a stillborn calf. Research indicates that first-time mother elephants, in the wild as well as in captivity, have a 33 percent rate of stillbirth with their first calf. On March 3, 1995, after 21 years of entertaining the public, Tarra retired, becoming the first resident of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

Merlian News Interviews Carol Buckley>

For more information read the wonderful book: Travels with Tarra Illustrated with dozens of photographs. Travels with Tarra is Carol’s 28-year odyssey with Tarra, the fascinating story of a lifetime commitment to an elephant, but it also asks us to reconsider the real needs of captive wild animals.

by The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (Story, ele-diary excerpts, and all photos used with permission of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee)