First came Tarra

There are some memories that are etched so deeply in my mind that I will never forget them. Among them are the first day I stepped on-grounds at the Sanctuary, and the last day I stepped off.

March 3rd brings back a flood of emotionally charged memories so intense that my senses are overwhelmed.  This is the day, back in 1995, when Tarra, Scott and I, along with my menagerie of dogs, birds and a single cat, moved to the Sanctuary.

Moving day was determined by the weather and the amount of rainfall during the previous 48 hours. The reason was that the entrance to the Sanctuary presented a challenge for Tarra’s rig.

Cane creek, a shallow, gravel bottom creek that crosses in front of Sanctuary property, usually swelled over its banks after a heavy spring rain.

The small wooden-plank bridge that crossed the creek was not sturdy enough to support the load of Tarra and her trailer. To accommodate larger, heavy vehicles, the local road maintenance crew leveled the embankment leading in and out of the creek, creating a bypass through the water. It was not paved and rumor is that many a driver had misjudged and ended up stuck in the soft gravel.

On this day the creek was very low and we were convinced–well, I should say I was — that we could drive Tarra’s rig through the creek without a problem.

With the engine screaming –RP’s through the roof, gravel crunching under tons of pachyderm weight and steel–we plunged into the shallow creek.

The soft creek bed felt like quicksand under our weight but I was determined not to spin the tires nor slow enough to get bogged down.  A happy balance was required and apparently it was reached because after what seemed like an eternity, we came crawling out the other side of the creek. I am sure our new neighbors heard our victory cheer over the screaming engine.

My dream realized

When I delivered my precious cargo to the threshold of my realized dream, I could hardly contain my excitement.

Over the previous three months I spent many days at the Sanctuary preparing the property for Tarra’s arrival. I always wondered if she knew what was about to happen. She definitely had to sense something grand was about to unfold, something that she had inspired.

For close to ten years I meticulously built this Sanctuary in my mind’s eye: the landscape, forest thick with trees, ponds, hills and pastures wrapped around a secluded valley with a creek running through the middle. I saw this image in my mind many times over the years and now it was real, my dream come true.

With the truck safely through the creek and parked inside the gates of elephant heaven, I anticipated pure silence.  But what I heard brought a smile to my heart.

The surrounding trees were teaming with flocks of boisterous birds, each determined to out-sing the others.  Their voices filled the air with soft chirps, tweets and rowdy calls. It was heavenly. I closed my eyes and breathed in the joy and magnificence of this moment, this day, this new beginning.

By the time this day arrived, Tarra and I had already shared a lifetime together with our family of dogs, goats, cats and birds. In addition to being naturally social, Tarra is very precious. She thrived in her big family.

Now we were literally standing on the threshold of monumental change. The Sanctuary would finally enable to us to expand the family to include other elephants. I had to refrain from thinking about this too much for fear I would burst from excitement.

First came Tarra

Then it was Tarra’s turn to take her first breath of Sanctuary air, which she did with much gusto, starting with a mighty trumpet as she bounded out of her trailer. She always thrills me with her drama queen antics. And I mean drama queen in the best way. Her playful side is her only side. She takes fun to the limit, adventure to the outer limit and when her people and her dogs share the adventure she is over the top.

Chattering her signature “bark” and spinning in circles, making volleyball size divots in the grass, Tarra hesitated for a split second. Then it was all four legs pumping as fast as she could drive them, leaving us with a view of her beautiful buttocks as she raced into the pasture.

My cheeks hurt so bad from smiling as I ran after her, not wanting to miss a second of this, our latest adventure.

Tarra ran around the pasture, doing her best to keep me and the dogs engaged in her play. It worked–we thoroughly enjoyed the fun she created.

The following twelve months was spent preparing for our second pachyderm resident and the unfolding of the Camelot years at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

Namaste Tarra, you inspired a vision like no other and continue to inspire me each and every day of my life.

Ojai remembers Tarra

Craig Walker from the Ojai Valley Museum contacted me recently. He was interested in an update about Tarra since our time living in Ojai. His article brought back fond memories of Tarra and me, and the community’s warm embrace of our unique relationship.

I am always amazed to hear recollections from people who have meet Tarra over the years.  Some of the stories are simply outlandish. One such story that really made me laugh was Matt’s memory of seeing Tarra skating down Matilija Canyon Road with three or four guys on horses holding her back with ropes.

WOW. Even though that might  sound fun, it never happened. I don’t doubt for a moment that Matt and his friends actually saw Tarra with her horse, donkey, pygmy goats and dogs in tow, but there were no ropes or skates involved.  Most likely what Matt witnessed was Tarra and family darting across Hwy 33 on our way to Matilija Lake. I admit that Tarra runs as smooth as a gazelle, so perhaps she appeared to be roller skating!

Many have asked where the skating gimmick came from. Truth is, it was just another inspiration on the road to sanctuary.

As Tarra grew, performing became increasingly boring for her. I struggled to find a way for her to enjoy the work. Since retiring was not yet in the cards, I looked for other ways to provide her a lifestyle she would enjoy.  By the time she was eight years old, that quest had already taken us from amusement park performer to circus performer to private party entertainer, to Hollywood bit player to watercolor artist. Keeping the work varied helped alleviate the boredom that seemed the greatest threat to Tarra’s cheery attitude.

While discussing my dilemma with a friend, I jokingly said, “I should teach her to rollerskate. It’s easy, fun and all the rage right now.”

We looked at each other and burst into excited laughter. He said, “That’s it! She’ll love it – Tarra, the world’s only roller skating elephant.”

The research that followed resulted in a set of clunky steel-frame skates with custom-made knee-high boots and industrial casters that rolled forward only. A star was born.

In those days I was unfamiliar with animal activism. I knew Tarra very well and was not surprised when she took to her skates like a fish to water…almost too much in fact. I know that animal activists reading this post will cringe at the very thought of me discussing Tarra’s skating in any positive light at all. But the truth is the truth. Tarra loved it.

Each skate fit like a glove and strapped on with seat belts. There was no way that anyone could have forced Tarra into her skates; she had to put them on herself. She would step inside the 12-inch high boot and wiggle her foot around until her toes slipped into custom designed padded toe spaces. Her assistants, all three of us, would then strap the sides of the boots and pull the seat belt straps tight.

Getting suited up with her skates took close to 20 minutes. The entire time she would chatter, trumpet and purr in anticipation of the fun. The hardest part was getting her to wait until she was completely and securely strapped in before bolting off, trunk and tail extended, in a mad dash around the roller rink.

It might come as a surprise why Tarra stopped skating. She never tired of the fun, but I learned how opposed to such unnatural activity certain people were.

One day, while Tarra was skating before a large crowd in an open parking lot, a well-dressed woman approached me, grabbed my arm and started yelling, “Animal abuse!” Of course I looked around to see what she was talking about and then realized she was talking about me.

I was shocked, unable to understand how this person could ever see Tarra’s play as abuse.  But that was the point: Tarra was having fun but skating was sending the wrong message.

I really grew up that day, realizing that perception is everything. If even one person saw Tarra’s skating as abusive, we could not do it. I began researching the animal activist movement and retired Tarra’s skates.

I believe that Tarra’s skating was not just another effort on my part to enrich her life. I believe it was another step along the road to sanctuary.

Showing Compassion

As we all struggle to make sense of Bella’s tragic death and the trauma Tarra experienced witnessing it, peace of mind does not come easily. Losing a loved one is difficult enough without the death being violent and the witness being helpless to stop it.

Tarra has seen many dog fights. Not once did she approach the fighting; instead she rapidly recoiled, squeaking fearfully, trunk tucked under her chin, moving away from the confrontation.

It is not that Tarra would not have wanted to come to Bella’s aid, but she does not possess that intense protective nature that drives a mother to defend her young. Tarra loved Bella with every cell in her being and saw her as a playmate and friend.

We can all agree that Tarra has experienced a serious trauma. Suggesting that in three short days she has come to terms with Bella’s death is not rational. Experts the world over have documented the depth of emotional and social bonds elephants possess. They grieve their dead in ceremonial fashion for days. They return to the place of death year after year, rekindling their memories. Mothers carry their dead calf for miles, refusing to leave the body until it decays.

To recognize that elephants are sentient beings means to understand the depth of their emotions. You cannot truly know them without recognizing their highly evolved reasoning capacity. The greatest mistake that can be made is to arrogantly underestimate an elephant’s intelligence and complexity or assume that you can truly know an elephant after only a few short months. Such errors can result in mismanagement.

There was a day when the Sanctuary would rally around a traumatized individual, immediately enlisting every resource possible. In all situations, recovery support was a priority. To deny Tarra anything in her time of need is heartless.

For Tarra

 DRESCHER                                                                       1720 Wset End Blvd.

 HELLER                                                                             Nashville, TN 37203

PIEPER                                                                                Telephone: (615) 425-7111


                                                        October 28, 2011



Robert E. Boston, Esq. –

Catherine H. Molloy, Esq. –


511 Union Street, Suite 2700

Nashville, TN 37219

Re: Buckley v. The Elephant Sanctuary, et al.  

Dear Bob and Katie:

                In light of Bella’s unfortunate death, I am writing to request that my client be given immediate access to Tarra. As Tarra comes to terms with the loss of her best friend, she will need the support of those closest to her. There is no one better suited to fill this role than Ms. Buckley.

                Please let me hear from you immediately. You can reach me on my mobile phone at any time. The number is (615) 429-0383.

              Thank you.


                                                                                        /s/ Sean J. Martin

                                                                                         Sean J. Martin


Cc(via email):

Noah McPike

Carol Buckley

For Tarra and her Bella

          Every tree that you pass,

          In the next several days,

          Will remind you of Bella,

          In so many ways.

          But she is still with you,

           Each step of the way,

          And nothing can sever,

          The bond that you made.

          Think of her sweet smell,

          And see her out there,

          Remember her playing,

          Throwing sticks in the air.

          Her essence is with you,

          Her spirit is strong,

          You are one with each other,

          She will never be gone.

          She brought you the sunshine,

          On those cold winter days,

          Then cuddled beneath you,

          On a warm pile of hay.

          When times get the hardest,

           With no will to go on,

          Remember your Bella,

          And the pain will be gone.

          I wish I could be there,

          To hold you and say,

          I’ll love you forever,

          Forever and a day.

          Namaste my sweet girl, Carol

I went to court for Tarra

I created the Sanctuary expressly for Tarra and have no intention of removing her from her home. But due to the changes in management at the Sanctuary since my removal, specifically the departure of co-founder Scott Blais and the entire senior caregiver staff, I feel an urgency to monitor Tarra’s wellbeing.

On August 17, I filed a Motion for Pendente Lite Relief in the Chancery Court of Lewis County, Tennessee. The motion asked the court for an order allowing me visitation with Tarra and for another requiring the defendant to remove certain documents filed before the court. The motion was to be heard September 7 but was postponed by opposing council and rescheduled for October 17.

Days before the hearing, opposing council filed a thick brief with the court arguing against the motions and the hearing. The brief mirrored opposing counsel’s previous attempts at character assassination and avoided any discussion of their client’s breach of contract regarding my visitation with Tarra. Instead, the brief contained a battery of insults, unfounded accusations and downright lies to distract the court from the issue of visitation.

The judge ruled to hear the motion.

My attorney argued that the Sanctuary had reneged on an agreement allowing me access to Tarra. It has been 18 months since I was last allowed to see Tarra and evaluate her wellbeing.

Opposing council argued that a request for visitation did not fall within the court’s authority. 

The judge explained that the courts view Tarra as property and, as such, he could grant permission to “inspect” her only in the event that I planned to remove her from Sanctuary grounds. Since removing Tarra from her Sanctuary home is not my intention, the motion for visitation was denied.

In a heartening display of empathy, the judge assured me and all present in the courtroom that my request was very reasonable, but that the law does not have a provision allowing him to grant the request.

The second part of my motion, a request to remove specific documents from the Sanctuary’s website was also heard. My lawyer pointed out that several anonymous, unsigned inflammatory letters were posted on the Sanctuary site along with their response to my lawsuit. The letters, written by disgruntled employees, most of whom had not been employed by the Sanctuary for years, contained vicious and false accusations. It was argued that these letters should either be removed or the authors identified.

Citing First Amendment rights, the judge ruled that the letters do not have to be removed. He explained that people are allowed to say anything they wish. It is up to the person being wrongly accused to sue for slander.

Great suffering of the heart for elephant and human alike; separating bonded individuals is paramount to abuse.

Tarra and I have shared our lives for 36 years, resulting in a deep personal relationship. What began as a novice caretaker and displaced orphaned elephant soon evolved into much more. Our shared experiences have forged a deep bond, much like mother and child.

The Board’s decision to keep Tarra and me apart is counterproductive for Tarra’s emotional wellbeing. Their actions defile the spirit of the Sanctuary. If aware of the depth of emotion elephants possess, they would not attempt to sever any significant relationship. As stewards of the Sanctuary, their abuse would appear to border on criminal.

Yesterday, inside the Lewis County courthouse, my attorney argued for my right to see Tarra in order to monitor her wellbeing. The Board’s attorney argued against, stating that my request was only intended to satisfy my own emotional need. The Board’s attorney spoke of the Sanctuary’s ability to monitor Tarra’s physical health, but not her overall health. Currently the Sanctuary has no expert on staff to monitor Tarra’s overall health, the wellbeing of her mind, spirit and body. The lack of such expertise puts all Sanctuary elephants at risk and negatively affects their continued rehabilitation.

There was little the Judge could do to grant my request under the confines of the law, which views animals as property. If Tarra had been a Kubota Tractor I would have be granted permission to “inspect” her. But as a thinking, feeling, non-human animal, her needs, as far as the law is concerned, are irrelevant.

Tarra and I have once again found ourselves in uncharted territory, this time with no law designed to protect our relationship. It is not the first time we have found ourselves governed by a system that is not designed to address or protect Tarra’s wellbeing.

Tarra has no resemblance to a piece of property. It is insulting for the Board to suggest so. Her relationship needs are real. As stewards, the Board bears the responsibility to allow Tarra and her precious sisters to develop the relationships they desire — a principle the Sanctuary was founded on.

Although today the court was unable to provide protection for Tarra, I am confident that my continued effort will be successful. I founded the Sanctuary 17 years ago for the express purpose of protecting Tarra from a cruel and unjust world. I will not allow anyone to harm her no matter how long this effort takes. I will not allow this judgment to deter me from my goal to reunite us. The promise I made to Tarra 36 years ago still holds true; I will never abandon her.

While daydreaming about Tarra……

I recalled our first romp on a pristine beach in Santa Barbara, CA. Tarra was a spunky youngster, small by elephant standards, full of playful energy. It was early morning, the sun was just lighting up the southern California sky and the beach was surprisingly empty. Like kids off on a grand adventure we climbed over the dunes that divided the highway from the beach beyond. Tarra sunk to her knees in the dry sand with each gangly step, leaving cavernous holes in her wake.

Abandoned volleyball courts lay down the beach to the left. The water’s edge was active with sandpipers plunging their beaks into the sand like tiny oil derricks. With an excited trumpet blast Tarra bolted toward the big blue ocean, dragging her toes in the wet sand as she ran. The resulting gouges filled in with each consecutive wave, erasing any trace of her presence.

Tarra enthusiastically ran toward the ocean as the water receded. But when an underdeveloped wave crashed at her feet, she screeched to a halt and back peddled awkwardly. Squeaking gleefully, trunk curled up under her chin, head pulled down low, she got eye level with the wave. As it once again receded, her confidence returned. Ankle-deep in the foamy swirl of sand and salt water, she did not notice the new wave building. It formed quickly, rising like a cobra from the ocean floor and slapped her broad side with a crack. Caught by surprise, Tarra’s eyes flashed wide. She stood frozen for a split second, staring straight at me. I could not help it, I broke up with laughter.

Recognizing the mischievous look on her face, I started running down the beach to get the jump on our ever familiar foot race. Tarra came tearing out of the water, running as fast as her stocky legs could drive her, trunk and tail fully extended like a bird dog on point. Our foot race ritual was a bonding exercise. Sometimes I let her win and other times she let me. This time it appeared that she was determined to be the winner. Slowed by the soft sand caressing our ankles, we raced down the beach, neck-in-neck, until she surged forward in a final sprint, leaving me in her dust clinching my sides in laughter.

Only then did I notice we were being watched. A uniformed man standing some distance away called out, “Miss, you cannot have an elephant on the beach.” Jokingly I responded, “Sorry, I didn’t see the sign.”