A very large animal hideaway in Middle Tennessee is celebrating a special elephant this weekend.
The Elephant Sanctuary, located on 2,700 acres in Hohenwald, 80 miles southwest of Nashville, is the nation's largest habitat refuge, dedicated to elephants and education and closed to the public.
For nearly 20 years, the sanctuary has provided refuge to old, sick and needy elephants. Shirley, an Asian elephant, has roamed the property nearly the entire time.
"She's fairly large and robust for Asian elephants," said Director of Elephant Husbandry Adam Stone. "She's nearly nine feet tall, well over 8,000 pounds, which is, while typical for that species, she's still large."
Shirley was born in Sumatra in 1948. Captured at the age of five, she was sold to a traveling circus and entertained audiences across the globe for 30 years. But life under the Big Top was rough.
In 1963, the circus ship Shirley was traveling on caught fire and partially sank. Shirley was burned on her back, side and feet, and lost part of her right ear.
In 1975, she was attacked by a fellow circus elephant and broke her leg. The leg was never set and healed poorly, causing an irregular gait.
Due to injury, Shirley was finally turned over to the Louisiana Purchase Garden and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana. For 23 years, she was provided exceptional care, including her own enclosure made specifically for her, but she lived isolated and alone.
On July 6, 1999, Shirley found refuge at The Elephant Sanctuary.
This weekend, July 18-20, her caretakers will celebrate her 65th birthday.
"It's really extraordinary," Stone said. "The median lifespan for elephants right now, both African and Asian, in captivity is in the mid-forties."
He added, "She's the third oldest elephant in North America."
"This is a chance to bring everybody down and share what we do, and hopefully get everybody on board," said Todd Montgomery, the sanctuary's education manager.
The sanctuary will celebrate Shirley's birthday with three days of public events at the facility's welcome center including videos, activities, and cake.
Since 1995, 24 elephants retired from zoos and circuses have found refuge at The Elephant Sanctuary.
Currently, 14 female pachyderms roam the expansive property, ranging in age from 32 to 65.
Although public access in the habitats is not allowed, cameras are set up throughout the sanctuary and offer real-time footage of the elephants.
For more information on camera access, events, and financial support, visit The Elephant Sanctuary's Web site.