By COLIN FLY
Associated Press Writer
HOHENWALD, Tenn. (AP) _ Only the tops of Sissy and Winkie's heads
poke above the water at their swimming hole.
A minute passes, Winkie nudges Sissy and they both come up for air.
Seconds later, Sissy goes under the water again, this time for about two
But she can't hold her breath in their contest much longer, so she
sticks out her gray snout and sprays water over herself and pachyderm
Sissy and Winkie, two adult female Asian elephants living with four
others, spend most days together eating, playing and taking the
occasional dip in the pond when the sun beams down on The Elephant
Opened in 1995 by executive director Carol Buckley and facilities
director Scott Blais, the nonprofit refuge outside this small town about
60 miles southwest of Nashville is the only one of its kind for Asian
elephants in North America.
Think of it as a retirement home for elephant entertainers. The six,
Bunny, Jenny, Shirley, Sissy, Tarra and Winkie, all came from
performance backgrounds, mostly at small zoos and circuses. Some
suffered malnutrition or accident and abuse injuries.
public's only chance to see these elephants is online through streaming
webcams on the property.
"What we're striving to do is give them a place to feel free and
feel comfortable expressing and being content with who they are," Blais said.
As Buckley says: "The elephants get to be elephants. Some of them
have never had that chance."
In return Buckley, Blais, and other invited researchers get to study
the habits and social interactions of the species.
Buckley, 49, began working with Blais, 30, more than a decade ago in
Cambridge, Ontario. She hired Blais to be the keeper for Tarra, the
elephant she purchased while studying exotic animals at California's
The two are clearly beloved at the 222-acre sanctuary. As they walk
along the animal trails, each elephant acknowledges the humans with body
language, postures and sounds. They ask for a pat on the leg or
sometimes to be left alone for the day.
The sanctuary currently can accommodate up to a dozen elephants, and
Tina, a 33-year-old Asian elephant, arrives from Vancouver in August.
another 2,500 acres will allow as many as 100 pachyderms and create a separate
refuge for African elephants.
"We could stay how we are ... but we felt strongly that we would be
handicapping the elephants' recovery and that if we were really going to
learn as much as we can, we needed more land," Buckley said. "Their need
to have a vast space to migrate through is important."
Several zoos and wildlife refuges have inquired about the African
addition, and three elephants _ Tangy and Zula from The Parks at Chehaw
in Albany, Ga., and Flora from Circus Flora in St. Louis _ will arrive
when the first phase of the project is finished by October.
"The whole thing with the expansion began with the needs for our
existing elephants, recognizing that we could accommodate their needs,
and at the same time be able to accommodate many, many more elephants _
which is great because the family grows," Buckley said.
The six elephants indeed form a kind of blended family, playing the
roles they would have in the wild as leader, parent, child and revered
Shirley, age 56, has become a protective adopted mother to Jenny.
When Shirley first arrived in 1999, Jenny seemed to recognize her
immediately although there is no bloodline connection between the two
former circus animals.
Buckley's research discovered the two had a link dating back 27
When Jenny was 6, she spent several weeks with Shirley before being
shipped elsewhere. They resumed their old relationship quickly.
"Shirley is the doting mom, and Jenny is the big baby," Buckley
"She's reverted, she does baby behavior, baby talk, baby everything and
all she has to do is go 'Mom!' and Shirley will come tearing across the
pasture to make sure everything's OK."
The death of Barbara in 2001 at 35 also helped forge the group into
Barbara was group leader before Shirley, and during her final months
each elephant spent at least a day alone with her, Blais said.
"Elephants show an incredible grieving and mourning process when a
group member dies," said Dr. Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado-Boulder
biology professor and expert in animal emotions. "They'll surround the
bones, and almost mope around. There's a definite change in demeanor and
Tarra, 29, took the death hard. She stayed at Barbara's grave for
nearly 48 hours after the burial, and she and Bunny, 51, still visit it
occasionally, Buckley said.
Experts say elephants' social skills are extremely refined and
captivity can cause anti-social behavior by depriving the animals of
companionship and the ability to roam.
"Typically what you'll see is animals in captivity are more
distressed," Bekoff said. "Captive animals are more raw, and you won't
see as much free-ranging joy."
"We're all about giving the elephants their lives back," Blais said.