Nestled on a secluded tract in the wooded hills of rural Tennessee is a sight that would likely startle an outsider, if outsiders were permitted to see it: the nation's largest sanctuary for old, sick and rescued elephants.
For the past 15 years, elephants who had spent lifetimes in zoos and circuses have found a place to retire, rest and roam, far from noisy audiences and free from cramped quarters.
Now, after an unexpected management change and a lawsuit filed by one of the original founders last year, their place of refuge is undergoing changes that may allow the world a better glimpse of their lives.
The sanctuary that's never been open to the public now wants to be a worldwide educational center for elephant care, while still remaining true to its mission to be a refuge for needy elephants.
"The sanctuary is and has always been about far more than just the people who work in it," said Rob Atkinson, the new CEO who arrived in Tennessee late last year. "It's about the elephants."
In 1995, two former elephant trainers, Carol Buckley and Scott Blais, started the sanctuary near Hohenwald, Tenn., about 85 miles southwest of Nashville, in part because Tennessee's temperate climate and vegetation made it a good home for African and Asian elephants.
With 2,700 acres of woodland with a 25-acre lake, the sanctuary has been home to 24 elephants since it opened, including several who were confiscated by authorities.
The sanctuary says zoos and circuses in the U.S. hold hundreds of captive elephants.
"There are so many elephants in really bad situations, if not terrible conditions," said Pat Derby, who runs the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society. "They are intelligent, brilliant and they need to be somewhere where they can express their natural behaviors and have companions."
Buckley ran the place from the beginning, but later became at odds with the board of directors over money matters. She also said in a lawsuit that she was ordered by a board member to delay telling a state wildlife agency that one of the elephants tested positive for tuberculosis.
The board, many of whom have been with the sanctuary for years, says that it negotiated with Buckley in hopes she would remain with the sanctuary in another position, but that she wouldn't cooperate. She was fired in March and filed a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages and visitation rights to see one of the elephants.
Buckley, who has since founded a new organization called Elephant Aid International, did not respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment. Last year, the board found a new CEO to work with co-founder Blais, who remains in charge of elephant care and facilities. Blais declined to be interviewed by the AP regarding Buckley or the lawsuit.
The new director studied at Oxford University and spent the past 11 years with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There he worked on an eight-year campaign that led to a 25 percent reduction in the number of elephants kept in zoos in the United Kingdom.
Atkinson said he hasn't been involved with the lawsuit, nor is he worried that Buckley's firing will hurt support for the sanctuary. But he's still trying to allay fears that he intends to bring drastic change.
"I'm sure there's some worry that when a new person comes in they are going to try to change it or do something awful, but I tried to make it very clear from the moment I applied for the job that the mission is sacrosanct," Atkinson said.
While the sanctuary will remain closed to the public, a new educational gallery is open in Hohenwald's downtown square, where people can meet with the caregivers and learn about the elephants. More than 12 new video cameras have been added throughout the grounds, which can be streamed live online or used in distance learning programs.
Atkinson said one goal is to bring more elephants to the sanctuary. Currently there are 12 Asian and two African elephants, but they have space enough for 50 more Asian elephants. Food and care cost about $1,000 per elephant each month, and there are currently 14 caregivers and 10 administrative staff workers.
The elephants are still kept behind fences and are provided food and medical care, but the sanctuary is as close to living in the wild as they can get, Atkinson said.
It looks much like a working Tennessee farm with acres of open pastures and woods and barns to store food and equipment. But as Atkinson drives his car bumping along the rutted dirt roads, he points out a glimpse of three of the Asian elephants, their gray hides peeking out between the tree branches.
The sanctuary's first elephant was Tarra, a female Asian elephant that Buckley had trained to perform in circuses, television and movies. Her friendship with a dog named Bella, chronicled in a much-watched video on Youtube, has been one of the sanctuary's most popular stories.
The elephants — all female because female elephants in the wild live in herds apart from the males — spend their days foraging, bonding with the rest of the herd and cooling off in the lake. In wintertime, they can escape the cold into heated barns. The African elephants, which are kept separate from the Asian elephants, like to strip all the foliage off the trees and then rip them roots and all out of the ground.
But like any wild animal, the elephants can be dangerous. In 2006, a caregiver was killed at The Elephant Sanctuary when one of the elephants suddenly knocked her over and stepped on her chest. Co-founder Blais was also injured in the accident.
The sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and inspections over the last three years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no violations.
Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife for Humane Society International, international branch of Humane Society of the United States, said elephants need space and the companionship of other elephants and the sanctuary is one of only two places in the country that can offer that.
Atkinson said he's confident that vital job will continue.
"We have and always had a twofold mission," Atkinson said. "One is to care for sick and needy elephants and the other is to educate people about the plight of elephants, whether they are in captivity or in the wild."
The Elephant Sanctuary: http://www.elephants.com/