After years in zoos and circuses, these elephants roam and play together.
Sissy was quiet and cautious when she arrived at her new home, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Sissy is an elephant. Like people, elephants are social. They are healthiest and happiest when they have family or friends.
But Sissy was not used to other elephants. She had spent 30 years alone in zoos. Now she was suddenly sharing a 2,700-acre refuge with several other elephants. At first, she carried a tire with her everywhere, like a security blanket. That’s what she did in the zoos. “But the staff wasn’t too worried,” Todd Montgomery says. He is an educator at The Sanctuary. “Sissy had adapted to new homes before, so we felt confident that she would adapt.”
Sissy and Winkie—BFFs
Several months later, another elephant arrived: Winkie. In no time, Sissy and Winkie became friends and were rarely apart. They often swam together in a pond, even in the rain. One day, Sissy walked away from her tire. That was a good sign.
Sissy, Winkie, and all the elephants who live in The Sanctuary were retired or rescued from zoos or circuses. At The Sanctuary, they can live out their lives with room to roam. Life in the refuge is not quite like life in the wild, where all the elephants in a herd are members of the same family. These elephants are not related. But they learn to share the same space, and many of them become constant companions.
A Place for Minnie
Another elephant, Minnie, arrived at The Sanctuary. She had lived at a wild-animal farm in Canada and, later, was in a circus. At first, Minnie was quiet and shy. The caregivers slowly introduced her to two other new arrivals, Ronnie and Debbie.These two had performed in a circus for years. The caregivers worried that the two old friends might not accept Minnie. So the caregivers gave Minnie a separate area where she could see, touch, and smell Debbie and Ronnie through a fence.
Minnie explored her space and played with her favorite toy, a 200-pound drainage pipe. But she often met with Debbie and Ronnie at the fence, where she could touch her trunk to theirs. “Trunk touches are generally accepted as a way of saying hello, like a handshake for humans,” Montgomery says.
Soon staff arranged playdates for the three. After one playdate, Ronnie, Debbie, and Minnie showed no signs of tiring of each other. Now the three elephants are often seen together. Their trumpets and rumbles vibrate throughout the habitat.
The elephants who roam The Sanctuary had spent much of their lives performing or on display. Today, their space is not open to visitors. “I like to think what we do here gives them a life closer to what they may have experienced in the wild,” says Montgomery. “I like to think that makes them happy.”
Caring for Elephants
Since The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee opened in 1995, 28 elephants have lived in this safe habitat. Nearly all of them were taken from the wild when they were young to perform in circuses or live in zoos. As they aged, they were retired and sent to live at The Sanctuary. They couldn’t survive if returned to the wild.
Image credit: Kate Mason Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary