Elephant Sanctuary in TN celebrates 25 years, home to third oldest elephant in North America

News 2 Plus

HOHENWALD, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee opened in 1995 in Hohenwald on 110 acres by Carol Buckley and Scott Blais.

Since opening, the sanctuary has grown to three separate and protected, natural habitats, spanning over more than 2,700 acres. It has also provided a home to 28 elephants, all retired from zoos and circuses.

Joy Owens is the Education Manager of the sanctuary. She said this is truly a space for the elephants to relax.

“We are not open to the public. So all of these elephants had a very long life performing in the public or being on display. At the sanctuary, they really just get to be elephants, get to explore that habitat and do elephant things. They really just get to live out the rest of their lives receiving just incredible care from our care staff and our vet team.”

And just like any captive animal, they require a lot of human care.

“If you are 8,000 or 9,000 pounds, having healthy feet is pretty important. So, all of the elephants get pedicures every week. But I mean, there’s so many other things. We’re looking at their skin, their eyes, their teeth. It’s just like…when you or I go to the doctor for a checkup and we get our full body physical exam, we’ve got to do the same thing for the elephants.”

Owens told News 2 there are currently 11 elephants living on the property. She said elephants can usually live into their 60’s, but they got to celebrate a very special birthday at the sanctuary this year.

“Shirley is 72 years old. And as I always tell the students I’m teaching that is 72 human years. It’s not dog years. Don’t count them any differently. So she was born in 1948 in Sumatra. Shirley is incredible. She is very, very old for an elephant.”

Shirley is the third oldest elephant in captivity right now and is in good health. Owens said staff wanted make this birthday a special one.

“Elephants have favorite foods just like you and I do. So, Shirley’s birthday her favorite food is bananas. So she got a vegan cake topped with bananas and strawberries. She also got some banana leaves, hay, we made some balloons out of rice paper, some bamboo, all sorts of tasty treats. You only turn 72 once.”

Owens told News 2 everyone is incredibly blessed to work with Shirley.

“Shirley has lived here since 1999. So, going on 21 years now. And she, by all accounts is just a really sweet elephant and incredible elephant to work with. She certainly has personality and she knows she’s the boss and in charge of what happens to her here, which makes working with her very fun. The caregivers like to say we all operate on ‘Shirley time’. Everyone just feels really lucky. She’s has a really magnetic presence. People are really drawn to her and her story.”

News 2 asked Owens if the COVID-19 pandemic has had any impact on the sanctuary.

“We’ve certainly taken more precautions as a staff to protect each other and to protect the elephants, but they kind of live very insulated, because we are very lucky to have a really strong donor base that has supported us through this. And we wouldn’t be able to care for these elephants without our donors making that possible.”

Owens said the sanctuary has been doing long distance learning for years.

“If you are near or far and you maybe don’t want to travel down to Hohenwald, you can actually schedule a Zoom call with us for your office, or your kids class, or your library or whoever we can meet with you virtually and talk to you more about, you know, The Elephant Sanctuary and what we do.”

To learn more about The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, click here.

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