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Elephant refuge may take on public role

Scott Blais, seen last month, cofounded the refuge, which seeks to play an educational role in elephant care. Scott Blais, seen last month, cofounded the refuge, which seeks to play an educational role in elephant care. (Josh Anderson/ Associated Press)
Associated Press / January 31, 2011

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HOHENWALD, Tenn. — After an unexpected management change and a lawsuit filed by one of the original founders, the nation’s largest sanctuary for old, sick, and rescued elephants is undergoing changes that may give the world a better glimpse of the animals’ lives.

The sanctuary has never been open to the public, but it now wants to be a worldwide educational center for elephant care, while still remaining true to its mission to be a refuge for needy elephants.

Nestled on a secluded tract in rural Tennessee, the sanctuary would probably startle outsiders if they were permitted to see it. For the past 15 years, elephants who had spent lifetimes in zoos and circuses have found a place to retire, rest, and roam, far from noisy audiences and free from cramped quarters.

In 1995, two former elephant trainers, Carol Buckley and Scott Blais, started the sanctuary near Hohenwald, in part because Tennessee’s temperate climate and vegetation made it a good home for elephants. With 2,700 acres of woodland and a 25-acre lake, the sanctuary has been home to 24 elephants since it opened, including several who were confiscated by authorities.

Buckley ran the place from the beginning, but later became at odds with the board of directors over money matters. The board says that it negotiated with Buckley in hopes she would remain with the sanctuary in another position, but that she wouldn’t cooperate. She was fired in March and filed a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages and visitation rights to see one of the elephants.

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