This is an excerpt from issue no. 136, “Sanctuary.”
Hurricane Michael crashed through southern Georgia in a fury. Winds whipping at more than 100 miles per hour sheared off rooftops and stripped cotton plants bare. Michael had fed on the tropical water of the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength. By the time it made landfall, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history.
In its aftermath, Carol Buckley gazed out at the wreckage strewn across her land. It was October 2018. Three years earlier, emotionally broken, she had come to this secluded place just north of the Florida Panhandle in search of a new beginning. Now she feared that she would have to start from scratch once again.
Buckley fired up a Kawasaki Mule and steered the ATV across the rutted fields to get a closer look at the damage. At 64, Buckley had a curtain of straight blond hair, and her eyes were the pale blue of faded denim. Years spent outdoors had etched fine lines into her tanned face. The Mule churned up a spray of reddish mud as she bumped along.
Michael had toppled chunks of the nearly mile-long chain-link fence ringing Buckley’s land. She was relieved to see that the stronger, steel-cable barrier inside the perimeter had held. Felled longleaf pines lay atop portions of it, applying immense pressure, but the cables hadn’t snapped. Installed to corral creatures weighing several tons, the fence stood firm.
Here outside the small town of Attapulgus, near quail-hunting plantations and pecan groves, Buckley had built a refuge for elephants. It was the culmination of a nearly lifelong devotion to the world’s largest land animals. But at the moment, Buckley’s refuge lacked any elephants—and one elephant in particular.
There are many kinds of love stories. This one involves a woman and an elephant, and the bond between them spanning nearly 50 years. It involves devotion and betrayal. It also raises difficult questions about the relationship between humans and animals, about control and freedom, about what it means to own another living thing.
The woman in this story is Buckley. The elephant is named Tarra. They met at a tire store in California, and together followed a serpentine path from spectacle to safety: from circus rings to zoo enclosures to a first-of-its-kind sanctuary. But now their bond was being tested. For complex reasons, Buckley had lost custody of Tarra, and just before Michael struck, a jury had deadlocked on whether the two should be reunited. In a few months, the case would go to trial again. If Buckley won, she would bring Tarra home to Attapulgus. If she lost, it was possible she’d never see the elephant again.
The uncertainty was a nightmare. But the fence Buckley built for Tarra had withstood a monstrous storm. This was, she thought, a good omen.
Anyone who has ever had a beloved pet can tell you that the relationship between an animal and its owner is special. Pets aren’t property in the way a house, a car, or a pair of shoes is. Some people love their animals in ways that defy logic. They don’t think of them as things; they think of them as family.
Even more nuanced are the relationships people have with highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees and dolphins. And elephants. In the past few decades, research has piled up showing that elephants are some of the brightest and most emotionally complex creatures on the planet. Like humans, they are self-aware—they can even recognize themselves in a mirror. They can also experience pleasure, pain, and grief.
Discoveries about elephant intelligence have helped bring about a sea change in the way the animals are treated. Some circuses, under pressure from animal rights groups, have stopped featuring elephant acts. Ringling Bros. retired its elephants in 2016, then shut down altogether the following year. Some U.S. states have banned exotic-animal performances and toughened animal welfare laws.
Activists are pushing for governments to do more: In 2022, the New York Court of Appeals considered whether Happy, an elephant in the Bronx Zoo, had the legal rights of personhood. If the question seems preposterous, consider that courts have held that corporations can be considered people in certain instances. So why not an elephant, which is a living, breathing creature?
Last June, the appeals court rejected the legal argument, which had been presented by an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, by a 5–2 vote. Still, some animal rights advocates see reason for hope: The case spurred public dialogue about the treatment of captive animals and whether some species should be no one’s property, ever.
Buckley’s views on owning animals have changed over the years. Understanding how and why means starting at the very beginning. Buckley grew up with dogs, and as a young adult she had a German shepherd named Tasha. One day in 1974, Tasha broke Buckley’s concentration when the dog went into a frenzy, barking at something outside the bay window of Buckley’s home in Simi Valley, a Los Angeles suburb. Rattled by the commotion, Buckley looked outside to see what Tasha saw. And there it was: a baby elephant.
A slim man was walking the elephant with a rope. The calf must have weighed as much as a refrigerator. Buckley bolted through the front door. “Who is she? Why is she here? What are you doing with her?” Buckley asked the man.
Buckley was 20 and had just moved to Simi Valley. She grew up south of Los Angeles in a large family. At her all-girls Catholic high school, she had been a mediocre student and so hyperactive that the nuns ordered her to run laps to burn energy. Buckley wasn’t sure precisely what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew it wouldn’t involve sitting still. She was studying exotic animal management at a community college, figuring that would set her on an exciting career path. Seeing an elephant stroll past her door seemed like fate.
“Come over to my tire store,” the man holding the rope told her. “She’s there every day. You can feed her.” Buckley was there waiting when the man and his elephant returned from their walk.
At the time, few rules governed the ownership and treatment of exotic animals. Bob Nance, the tire shop’s proprietor, had a small menagerie—a Siberian tiger, parrots, monkeys—that customers could gawk at while their new Michelins were being mounted. His pets were a selling point. And a baby elephant? Now that was something. Her name was Fluffy, which a kid had suggested in a naming contest Nance sponsored in a local newspaper.
Fluffy wasn’t Nance’s first elephant. Before her there had been Dolly, purchased from Louis Goebel, an exotic-animal impresario who’d created an LA theme park called Jungleland. But things with Dolly didn’t go as hoped. Her keepers pulled up to Nance’s shop, unloaded the nearly full-grown elephant, handed Nance a training hook, and were on their way. Nance, who had no experience with elephants, hacked off the end of a car axle, stuck it in the ground of his parking lot, and chained Dolly to it during work hours. At night he tethered her to an outbuilding. Once, Dolly yanked herself free—sort of. The police called to alert Nance. Bob, they said, your elephant is dragging a building down Los Angeles Avenue.
Nance feuded with city officials over whether zoning laws allowed him to keep an elephant at his store until one day, reluctantly, he agreed to sell Dolly to a circus operator. Soon after Goebel called him up. Jungleland was about to close its doors, and a newly arrived baby elephant needed a home. Could Nance help? A calf, Nance reasoned, would be easier to handle, at least for a while. “Of course,” he told Goebel.
Fluffy was probably from Burma, where it was common for poachers to kill mother elephants in order to capture their valuable calves. It was an act of unimaginable cruelty, not least because baby elephants are extremely close with their mothers, and suckle for as long as five years. Fluffy was about six months old when she was shipped to the U.S. Most likely, animal merchants in Thailand packed her into a wooden crate, loaded her aboard a cargo plane, and launched her on a stomach-churning flight over the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t unusual for baby elephants to arrive dead.
Fluffy became the star attraction at Nance’s store. She was good-natured and always hungry. Sometimes Nance stuffed her into the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car and drove her to nearby elementary schools, where wide-eyed students admired her. Nance outfoxed the city officials who’d complained about Dolly by keeping Fluffy in a travel trailer, which allowed him to move her when he needed to.
After meeting Fluffy, Buckley herself became a fixture at the tire store. She showed up many mornings before class. She shoveled the dirty wood shavings out of Fluffy’s trailer and fed the elephant breakfast. Fluffy consumed four quarts of formula from a bottle, along with a pile of fruits and vegetables. Twice a week, Buckley wheeled a buggy through a local produce store and loaded it up with whatever was available: apples, oranges, cucumbers, bananas, onions. Carrots were Fluffy’s favorite.
In those early days, Fluffy tolerated Buckley, but she adored Nance, who always had a pocket full of shiny jellybeans. She chirped excitedly whenever he appeared. Nance wasn’t too concerned about training Fluffy, until one day she nearly crashed through a glass door at the tire store. Nance agreed to let Buckley teach Fluffy a few things about how to behave.
Buckley had never trained an elephant before, so she started by using the methods she’d used with her dogs growing up. Positive reinforcement was the most important one. Buckley would instruct Fluffy to lift her foot, then demonstrate what she meant by physically pulling the elephant’s leg up off the ground. When Fluffy got the move right on her own, Buckley rewarded her with food. Fluffy was stubborn, but dangle a banana in front of her and she’d do anything you asked.
Back then, most captive elephants didn’t get rewards for behaving as they were told. In circuses, on film sets, and at animal parks, handlers used what’s known as dominance training. When an elephant didn’t do what they demanded, they whacked it with a bull hook or punished it some other way. Buckley was aware of that approach, but it didn’t feel right. Fluffy was bursting with energy and eager to please. Training her felt like play. “It wasn’t about control,” Buckley said. “It was about trust and building a relationship.”
Years later, Buckley would question the foundation of her work with Fluffy. But for now she was happy. Fluffy seemed to be, too. The elephant learned to follow one command after another. Tricks came next. The future was rich with possibilities: of what Fluffy might do, of who might see her, of where Buckley might take her.
By the time Fluffy was a year old, she and Buckley were inseparable. When Buckley sat on the floor of the elephant’s trailer to do homework, Fluffy watched over her. When Buckley didn’t pay the elephant enough attention, Fluffy nudged her playfully with her trunk.
According to Buckley, there were nights when she brought Fluffy home with her. She would back the elephant’s trailer up to the bay window of her house so they could see each other. Buckley studied with the light on while Fluffy dozed outside in the dark. Sometimes Fluffy awoke and stretched out her trunk, 40,000 tiny muscles working in unison, probing toward the lit window as if to make sure Buckley was still there.
Today, graduates of the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College run zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities. Some manage animal acts for Hollywood studios. Moorpark has become the MIT of animal wrangling, the place where you learn how to get a tiger to open its mouth wide for a veterinary exam without being eaten alive. But back in the mid-1970s, the program was in its infancy.
The two-year associate’s degree was the brainchild of William Brisby, a onetime high school biology teacher who taught himself how to work with dangerous animals. Sporting thick sideburns, a full beard, khaki attire, and aviator sunglasses, Brisby looked like a safari guide. In a way he was. He created a teaching zoo for the Moorpark program, the first resident of which was a gray wolf named Kiska. Students took turns caring for her. Brisby later acquired capuchins, a camel, even a lion, according to author Amy Sutherland’s book about Moorpark, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched.
Sutherland describes Brisby as both charismatic and problematic. He divorced his first wife, became engaged to one of his students, then broke it off to marry a younger one. A mythology sprang up around him, which gave him swagger. People said he’d trained dolphins with the Navy—not so, according to the founder of the Navy’s marine mammal program.
Brisby could be tough, dictatorial even. “For the next two years in this program you don’t have a life,” he told first-year students. “You belong to me.” But Buckley wasn’t intimidated by Brisby. She was audacious and headstrong. Brisby became her mentor as she figured out what to do about Fluffy.
By the summer of 1975, Buckley was dedicating all her free time to the elephant. She spent a month with Robert “Smokey” Jones, a legendary elephant trainer. She also volunteered to take Fluffy to events—people paid for the elephant to appear at parties or on camera. At a Mother’s Day celebration in Topanga Canyon, Fluffy surprised everyone, including Buckley, by plunging into a pool. When Fluffy was booked on Bob Hope’s Christmas special, she infuriated the star by reaching out with her trunk to touch his crotch.
Occasionally, Buckley recognized how precarious the whole endeavor was. She towed a two-ton elephant in a trailer on Southern California’s busy freeways and winding canyon roads. Once, up north in the foothills of San Jose, she saw a couple of boys at the side of the road harassing a snake. She pulled over and hopped out to scold them as the snake slithered into the woods. Then Buckley turned and saw the trailer; she’d parked at the edge of a steep drop. One wrong move—an emergency brake not set right, Fluffy shifting her weight just so—and the vehicle could have crashed into the ravine. Buckley felt a shiver and knew she needed to be more careful.
The more time Buckley spent with Fluffy, the less she spent on schoolwork. She sought Brisby out for advice. She told him she saw a future with Fluffy, a chance to make the elephant her career, book gigs across California, maybe around the country. Brisby leaned back in his chair as she spoke. When she finished, he reminded her that the Moorpark program was designed to help students break into the exotic-animal management industry. With Fluffy, Buckley had already done that. She didn’t need Moorpark anymore. “Don’t come back for the second year,” Brisby advised.
Buckley left school. She moved into a small trailer next to Fluffy’s on Nance’s property. According to Buckley, Nance started paying her on a weekly basis to care for the elephant. When Buckley asked Nance to build Fluffy a barn, he did.
But the arrangement didn’t last long. Simi Valley, ringed by hills and thick with citrus groves, had once felt a world away from the busy heart of Los Angeles. By 1976, however, housing tracts were crowding out the farms and ranches. Nance didn’t like what he saw and decided to relocate to Northern California. Buckley seized the opportunity. With a loan cosigned by her father, she bought Fluffy for $25,000.
Buckley was sure Fluffy would be a star, but decided that the elephant’s name wouldn’t do. She wanted something that would look good in lights. Buckley scribbled letters in a notebook, trying out different combinations. Eventually she wrote down T-A-R-R-A. Yes, that was it. Tarra.
The calls started coming in. Tarra appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, in which a circus passes through to the pioneer town of Walnut Grove. Carol Burnett sat atop Tarra in the movie Annie. Tarra appeared on one of Jerry Lewis’s telethons.
But Buckley soon discovered that there was less demand in show business for a lone elephant than for a herd of three to five that could perform tricks together. Buckley wasn’t about to buy more elephants, so Tarra would need a gimmick to be competitive.
One day a man approached Buckley at a sports expo in Santa Barbara where Tarra was doing tricks to amuse visitors. He introduced himself as an ice skater and gushed about Tarra.
“She’s so coordinated,” he said. “I could teach her to ice-skate!”
“No, you will not,” Buckley huffed.
A year or so later, she reconsidered. When Buckley and Tarra weren’t on the road, their home base was Ojai, California, where they lived along the Ventura River. Twice a day, rain or shine, they waded into the river together. Tarra splashed excitedly while Buckley watched. The river was full of large, smooth boulders, and Tarra picked her way across them with astonishing ease. She was eight by then, and the size of an SUV; she ate about 50 pounds of food a day. But she was nimble. Buckley marveled at how Tarra balanced on the boulders, gripping the edges with her toes.
OK, Buckley thought, let’s give this skating thing a try. In Southern California, she decided, roller skates would be a better fit.
Buckley visited a local welder, who estimated that it would cost $2,500 to construct metal skates big and strong enough for an elephant. Buckley had $3,000 in her bank account. She called her mother. “You know Tarra better than anyone,” her mother told her. “If you think she would like it, then do it.” Buckley emptied her bank account and commissioned the skillet-size skates.
Then she went to a shoemaker to inquire about “boots”—really what she wanted was more like mammoth ankle braces—to give the elephant additional support. “Before you say no, just come and meet her,” Buckley pleaded. The shoemaker did and, charmed by Tarra, agreed to make the boots.
On a sunny spring morning, Buckley walked Tarra to a stretch of concrete near her home, the foundation for a house that had never been finished. Today it would be the setting for a most unusual lesson. Like she had so many times before, Buckley asked Tarra to raise one of her front legs. When the elephant complied, Buckley guided her foot into a skate—the straps were made of seatbelts, the wheels of industrial casters. Then she repeated the process with the other front foot. The leather boots rose about halfway up Tarra’s stocky legs. Buckley would only be trying out the front skates, to see how the elephant took to them.
Tarra bounded off, trumpeting and chattering, rolling and playing. She seemed almost to bounce with glee. Wobbly at first, she quickly gained confidence and control.
Two weeks later, Buckley took Tarra to an abandoned warehouse, where there would be room for her to experiment for the first time wearing all four skates. Tarra glided across the concrete floor. Her excitement was contagious.
Buckley now had a roller-skating elephant. Tarra didn’t spin or do tricks; the fact that she was on wheels was enough to attract attention. The bookings poured in. Buckley and Tarra promoted Shriner circuses on the West Coast. They appeared at roller rinks and in vast parking lots. Before events, Buckley got on her hands and knees with a level to make sure the venue didn’t slope, making it difficult to stop. Then she adorned Tarra with a shiny headdress and got ready for the show. Buckley skated alongside Tarra, dressed in a leotard cut high at the leg.
On the road, they bunked together in a custom trailer. When it was time to sleep, Buckley climbed into bed in a compartment up front and said good night. She could hear Tarra slump against the wall and slide down to the floor. The trailer shook as the elephant got comfortable. Buckley fell asleep to the rumble of Tarra’s heavy snores.