Tarra meets a baby bird

The story that goes with this touching photo taken in 2001 is equally amazing. I went out to the back of the Phase ll barn and found Tarra staring at the fledging on the horizontal corral cable. I was without camera and said to Tarra, “Don’t move, don’t scare it — I’m going to get the camera.  I’ll be right back!”

I ran back the length of the barn and up the stairs, found my camera, ran back down the stairs and out to the back of the barn. It had to have taken me two to three minutes. When I came back around the corner, Tarra was standing perfectly still, in the exact same spot as when I left her. I swear she was holding her breath.

I was able to take three photos before the fledgling flew off. 

I praised Tarra for standing so still and for not trying to touch the baby bird, which I could tell she was dying to do. Her eyes were still as large as saucers, sparkling with excitement. She squeaked, took a deep breath and let out a piercing trumpet.

Another magical moment with Tarra.

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.

in his own words before being offered the CEO position

19th February 2010

 Dear Sanctuary Directors,

 To the Board of Directors of the Elephant Sanctuary, TN

I have become aware of the possible imminent departure of Carol Buckley from the Elephant Sanctuary. I have only today found this out and am writing to you in the hope that I am not too late. Please forgive the brevity of this letter and that it is not typed up on headed paper from my institution, but it is late on Friday night 19th February and I believe I must act very quickly.

Following twelve years scientific research at Oxford University I became Head of the Animal Department at Woburn Safari Park, which held three Asian elephants, and early in my career worked with elephants at London Zoo. For the last ten years I have been Head of Wildlife at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s largest animal protection organisation. During my time with the RSPCA I have headed a long-running effort to eliminate the terrible issues associated with elephants in zoos and circuses. I have had considerable success, with a reduction in the number of UK zoos holding elephants from 18 in 2002 to 12 today, and a reduction in the elephant population from 90 to 70.

I work very closely with my colleagues in the US on captive elephant issues. Amongst those colleagues I do not hesitate to single out Carol as the one who has had most influence on my work. I first visited her at the Sanctuary in 2002, and was struck by all she has achieved, by her knowledge and by her compassion for elephants. What Carol does with elephants without the use of force, bullhooks, electric hotshots, chains or negative reinforcement of any sort is nothing short of remarkable.

You may not be aware of the massive regard the elephant protection movement has for Carol. She is a beacon of hope to us, because she proves elephants, even the damaged and dangerous, can be loved and cared for and returned to happiness. Accordingly there are many, many zoos which fear her. She does with elephants what none of them has ever achieved or could hope to achieve.

Carol has an integrity no-one else in our movement can match because of her first hand experience and success; she has nothing left to prove. I remember a colleague of mine, a UK zoo curator, talking to me and Carol in Boston in 2005. This man had been exposed to the lies and confusion of the elephant keeping world, yet having spoken to Carol – who in many ways was his “enemy” – he said “I hear so much and do not know what to believe – but for some reason I believe you”. This says much about Carol’s credibility.

Carol is an outstanding spokesperson for the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary, its staff and elephants come first, but her impact and influence extends far beyond the Sanctuary’s borders. She is articulate and naturally charming. She is extremely politically astute and wise.

Carol has made the Sanctuary into a living, breathing model of what elephant management can and should be – and I speak as someone opposed to elephants in captivity. There is only one place I personally would want a captive elephant to live, and that is with Carol at the Sanctuary. Carol has underpinned the Sanctuary’s work with a deep, ethically sound philosophy which gives it its strength. Science is revealing more and more of the complex emotional lives elephants lead, and they are easily traumatised. Please do not underestimate the knowledge needed to understand the minds of these abused and traumatised animals nor the skill involved in aiding their recovery, and in instructing other caregivers to do the same safely. The elephants and the Sanctuary need Carol’s skill, heart and wisdom. I have met elephant carers all over the world, and been one myself, but I have never met anyone like Carol.

I cannot emphasise enough what it would cost the Sanctuary, captive elephants and the elephant protection movement if we lose Carol; it does not bear thinking about.

With my best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Rob Atkinson.

Dr. Robert Atkinson, BSc (London), MSc, PhD (Oxford)

Head of Wildlife Department,

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,

Wilberforce Way,



West Sussex

United Kingdom.

Tel +44 (0)300 123 0205

Email ratkins@rspca.org.uk