ATTAPULGUS – Hundreds of large posts are going up around the elephant refuge in Attapulgus. Once they’re up — a handful of elephants can come.
“That fencing project should be done in six weeks,” says Founder and CEO of Elephant Aid International, Carol Buckley. “At that point we start the elephant corral, which is interior to the perimeter fence. [It] encloses about 800 acres, giving elephants access to almost all the land.”
This is the second refuge Buckley has founded. All 850 acres of the land will be for the elephants.
“I really see this as a healing place for the elephants first,” says Buckley. “We really want these elephants to live as natural a life as possible. So I’ve learned over the years, the decades, that I’ve management elephants is that when you expand that family group, in a sanctuary setting, if you expand that group too large, their relationships fracture. And they’ll actually split off from each other. That’s not what we want. We want them to remain as a close-knit family.”
That’s why Buckley is only planning to take in 7 to 10 elephants at the refuge.
“We’re going to mimic that,” says Buckley. “If we can pay attention to what is natural to them, and provide that, they will be able to recover from their traumas and live a much healthier life.”
Each elephant that lives at the refuge will get individualized attention, depending on what trauma they may have. Buckley says, it’s different for every elephant.
“There are somewhat standard things that happen with captive elephants,” explains Buckley. “They’re usually kept in small spaces, they’re dominated, many times, many elephants live alone, which is not normal for females, males either.”
Buckley says sadly, in most cases, it’s traditions that lead to the bad treatment of elephants.
“Here’s a large, large mammal that can be 8 to 10 foot tall, and weigh 4,000 pounds, and just their presence can be frightening to people,” says Buckley. “So, it has been traditional that elephants have been dominated. And so that’s seriously traumatic for elephants.”
But along with researching how they’ve been treated in the past, Buckley says, she also has to research when a particular elephant was captured.
“[It depends on] what kind of trauma, psychological trauma they’ve experienced,” says Buckley. “The younger they were, the worst the trauma. Many of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.”
To help with the healing process — that’s where veterinarian Gigi Gaulin comes in. She will be the vet on-site at the refuge to help heal the elephants.
“Specifically the emotional healing, and then any of the other physical things that need attention and support,” says Gaulin. “I’m sure I’ll be observing and be learning from Carol, from her vast experience of working with elephants. It’s more of taking my medical background and applying that to whatever may arise here with the elephants and learning.”
Buckley hopes all the elephants, including her mentor elephant Tarra, will be settled in by this summer.
Buckley first met Tarra in 1974, when Tarra was about six months old. Buckley raised the young elephant but, in many ways, Buckley says it was Tarra raising her. Buckley says Tarra is the inspiration behind the two refuges she founded, and continues to be her inspiration today.
Once it is all completed, the refuge will not be open to the public. But Buckely says she has plans for volunteer groups and teaching opportunities for others around the world to learn a better way of caring for elephants.
“Number one, my priority is to give elephants a healthy, safe place to live. To give them autonomy — that’s the number one thing,” says Buckley. “If you give them autonomy and let them make their own choices then everything falls into place. So, they’re the priority. But second to that, is to instill a respect and understanding of elephants in people. Because there’s so many people that want to learn and so many people who are receptive, but they don’t have an opportunity to really get the facts and learn. So we can do both things — We can help elephants and we can help people.”