November 29, 2022

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

We are honored here at Pacific Roots Magazine to include a feature this month on The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a haven for formerly captive elephants. Our platform is dedicated to raising awareness on a range of animal advocacy issues so we are glad to bring to this platform an interview with Joy Owens, Education Manager at The Elephant Sanctuary.

The Elephant Sanctuary was founded in March of 1995 by Carol Buckley and Scott Blais as a retirement home for captive elephants and, at the time, specifically for the Asian elephant Tarra whom they traveled and performed with. As they learned more about the needs of Tarra and of captive elephants in general, they conceived of a place where Tarra would have vast habitat space to explore and other elephants to socialize with so that she could lead a life as close to a wild life as possible. The Sanctuary was the result of these ideas. There are currently 11 elephants living at The Sanctuary. Since being founded in 1995, 28 elephants have come to The Sanctuary. – Joy Owens, Education Manager at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Asian elephants, Shirley and Tarra, Photo: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Interview with Joy Owens, Education Manager at The Elephant Sanctuary

The sanctuary is closed to the public, a real testament to the reality that the sanctuary exists singularly for the care, safety and rehabilitation of these elephants. Many wonderful sanctuaries do allow visitors to help educate and raise awareness but yours took this specific stance which is also commendable What were the various reasons the Elephant Sanctuary decided against visitors?

Joy: At The Sanctuary, our elephant’s care and well-being is our first priority. With this in mind, we provide each elephant with vast, natural habitat to explore, opportunities for socialization with other elephants and individualized care for life. The habitats are designed to promote wild behaviors – everything from foraging for their own food to digging mud wallows. We also believe that elephants are complex, intelligent animals who deserve the freedom to choose how they spend their time whether that be swimming in the pond, resting in the shade or exploring the far reaches of their habitats.

African elephants, Sukari and Tange, Photo: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

The Sanctuary is 2,700 acres divided into three separate habitats. With this in mind, the elephants could be any number of places at any given time. Creating spaces where we could guarantee that visitors could “see” the elephants at any given time would simply not be feasible and could potentially interfere with the desire to provide as much habitat and as much variety and freedom to each elephant as possible. Again, The Sanctuary site was simply not designed with the needs of visitors in mind – it was designed solely to provide for the needs of the elephants.

Our live-streaming EleCams offer views of the elephant habitats and are a very valuable tool for educating and reaching a wider audience. The EleCams – 13 in total – can view the far reaches of the habitats that would be impractical for visitors to see in person. Supporters around the world can check in on the elephants from their own home and stay more engaged with The Sanctuary and elephant conservation through this technology. This virtual audience is unencumbered by the limitations of physically traveling to Tennessee – the barrier to entry is much lower meaning we can reach a more diverse, global audience.

Photo: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Can you please share more with us about the educational activities of The Sanctuary and the types of programs you offer schools and community groups worldwide?

Joy: The Sanctuary has a number of educational programs and outlets. Our largest program at the moment is our Distance Learning Lab. This program is entirely web-based and allows us to connect with students and communities all over the world. We utilize Skype or other video conferencing software to connect with these groups and share photos, our live-streaming EleCams and offer one-on-one instruction with a member of our education team. Lessons last 30 minutes to an hour and cover everything from the life stories of our resident elephants to the important role elephants play in the wild as keystone species. Students are encouraged to participate and ask question to increase their engagement in the program. The goal is not only to share The Sanctuary’s work but also to foster a compassion for elephants and their conservation in a younger generation. Last year we spoke with over 11,000 students in 40 US states and 19 countries through this program.

Our Elephant Discovery Center (EDC) was completed in January of 2019 as the physical show piece of our educational programming. The EDC offers a number of interactive educational experiences through exhibits designed by DC-based company, Howard & Revis in collaboration with The Sanctuary Staff. Much like the Distance Learning Lab, the EDC focuses on both captive and wild elephants. In the Outdoor Classroom, you can study the differences between elephant species, measure yourself against life-size elephant silhouettes and read about how elephants are engineers of their habitat. In the indoor Exhibit Hall, you can learn about the history of captive elephants alongside the timeline of The Sanctuary itself. You can visually immerse yourself in a day at The Sanctuary through our larger than life projection wall and virtually tour The Sanctuary grounds via our touch screen map table. We wanted visitors to the EDC to feel as though they had “visited” The Sanctuary itself without compromising our core principle of being closed to the public. The EDC is open to drop-in visitors, school and community groups and anyone seeking to learn more about the complex needs of elephants.

Asian elephant, Debbie, Photo: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Can you please share more about the licensing and accreditation processes that The Sanctuary has gone through and the benefits of being accredited and certified by these agencies.

These accreditations and certifications show that we are accountable and that we are meeting, and often exceeding, standards of welfare, care, and more for our resident elephants. We are currently the only organization recognized by both GFAS and the AZA. This is of course a point of pride for us as an organization – that our work is being recognized. But I think more importantly, it gives our supporters and others interested in animal welfare confidence in our work because they know we have met clear and measurable standards set by these institutions. Lastly, it also gives us credibility as we continue to network with other organizations to promote elephant conservation and to have more elephants retired to The Sanctuary. It gives us a seat at the table and ensures that elephant owners have peace of mind that if they send their elephants here that they will be well cared for as certified by these third party organizations. 

Visit The Elephant Sanctuary online at

Feature & Interview by Annika Lundkvist at Pacific Roots Magazine Editorial Desk

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Editor’s Note

Welcome! Launched in Summer 2019, Pacific Roots Magazine is a platform devoted to issues of veganic agriculture, sustainability, plant based food & more. We welcome you along for the journey as we explore, learn & develop further awareness about this home we call Earth. 

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