The Circus Elephant Retirement Home

Elephants weigh 3 tons and eat 200 pounds of food per day. Sustaining these massive animals is an enormous (and expensive) task. So what happens to circus and zoo elephants when they grow old and can no longer earn their keep by entertaining audiences? They move to a retirement home in Tennessee. Here's how two elephant trainers created a safe, beautiful place for these animal elders to enjoy their golden years.

The Circus Elephant Retirement HomeS


Located roughly 100 miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee in the small town of Howenwald The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee on 112 acres of land and with only one elephant in 1995. Their first elephant, the 22-year old Tarra, spent her life working in film and television, and learned to roller skate along the way.

Elephant trainers Carol Buckley and Scott Blais chose the small Tennessee town of Howenwald as its climate is similar to the indigenous climate of African and Asian elephants. Over time, the sanctuary grew from 112 to 2700 acres, and the staff grew and changed. The sanctuary currently features a 25 acre pond, a variety of terrain, and several heated barns to house the elephants on cold nights. The sanctuary is divided into three areas, with areas specifically created to simulate the home terrain of African and Asian elephants.

The Circus Elephant Retirement HomeS

A hands off approach
18 elephants currently roam the 2700-acre sanctuary. Several caregivers work tending the creatures, but for the most part, the elephants are left to their own devices as a part of the sanctuary's passive management policy. This allows the elephants to form a herd as they would in the wild.

Caregivers maintain the barns, in addition to making sure that each elephant leaves the barn during the day and roams the sanctuary. The elephants often walk 3 to 15 miles throughout the terrain over the course of the day. Some of the elephants refrain from sleeping in a barn at night, choosing to stay on the sanctuary 24 hours a day.

Ladies only
In the wild, male and female elephants rarely live together. Asian elephants form herds based on gender, with a female herd containing several generations of elephants. Young males stay with the female herd until they are 6-10 years of age. Once they begin to exhibit breeding behavior, males are pushed out of the female herd.

Only males in dire health situations are accepted on the reserve. In one case, the sanctuary took in a captive-born elephant named Ned, an elephant confiscated from his owner. Extremely underweight and in poor health, Ned received around the clock veterinary care, but died five months after entering the sanctuary.

The sanctuary is also trying to acquire two elephants from Topeka Zoo — the 49 year-old Sunda and 40 year-old Tembo. Sunda and Tembo spent the last 36 years on display at the Topeka Zoo.

A goal of 100 elephants
The sanctuary's facilities can currently care for up to 25 elephants comfortably, but the available 2700 acres is enough area for 100 elephants to roam. The caregivers hope to expand the infrastructure over time, particularly the barns, to provide care for more elephants. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, along with other wildlife sanctuaries throughout the world are providing wonderful homes for these animals in their last years of life.

The Circus Elephant Retirement HomeS

How you can help
The habitat seeks to raise $185,000 per elephant as an endowment. Similar to a university endowment, the money is invested, with the funds garnered used to feed and care for the elephant through the rest of her lifetime. The sanctuary also accepts donations of food, money for specific items to upgrade the sanctuary like an automatic watering system, and "feed an elephant for a day" donations in the amount of $30.

To allow the elephants to lead peaceful lives, the sanctuary is not open to the public . If you need cute elephants right now, the sanctuary does offer streaming video of the elephants and maintains an active YouTube page.

Top image from anupjkat/DeviantART. Images from the The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Sources linked within the article.