Sanctuary in Custody Fight Over Elephant
By MALCOLM GAY
A territorial feud that sounds like something out of the African savannah has erupted in rural
This month, Ms. Buckley, 56, filed a lawsuit against the Elephant Sanctuary after its board fired her as president and chief executive, ejected her from her home on sanctuary grounds and barred her from visiting Tarra, the 36-year-old Asian elephant she raised from a calf.
The Elephant Sanctuary is the country’s first natural-habitat refuge for aging elephants — many bearing scars from lives spent living and performing in captivity — where they roam free, perhaps reclaiming part of their true elephant nature. It is a model for havens worldwide, and the dispute has rocked the normally tame world of animal conservation. Experts have written in support of Ms. Buckley, and some of the sanctuary’s roughly 85,000 members have stopped donating.
At the center of the dispute is the custody battle for Tarra, the elephant that served as inspiration for this vast landscape of gentle hills and fresh streams.
“They’ve taken everything: my dog, my bird, my cat, my home, my life’s work — my elephant,” said Ms. Buckley, who has moved to a house not far from the sanctuary. She added: “It’s not real. It can’t be real.”
Ms. Buckley charges in her lawsuit that board members defamed her by telling donors that she was aggressive toward elephants and that she had engaged in “illegal practices.” She says that her ouster came after she opposed a $60,000 payment to the spouse of a board member, and she is seeking more than $1 million, her old job back and renewed visitation rights with Tarra.
“This is my elephant,” said Ms. Buckley, a diminutive woman with missionary zeal, seated in the home of a
The board denies the lawsuit’s claims, but has refused to comment directly on its actions.
“There was a long list of quite sufficient reasons,” said Dr. William Schaffner, who has assumed the board presidency. Dr. Schaffner, the chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, suggested that the sanctuary had become “profoundly dysfunctional” under Ms. Buckley, adding, “If we started to talk about this, it would reflect only adversely on Carol, and I’m not interested.”
The board’s silence has angered donors like Mary Anne Nyquist, who has served on an advisory committee since the sanctuary’s inception.
“The board handled this very poorly,” Ms. Nyquist said. “We’re all friends, but I got a membership notice in the mail a couple of days ago, and I just wrote: ‘Please remove me from your membership roll.’ ”
Co-founded in 1995 by Ms. Buckley, a former circus performer, and Scott Blais, an animal handler, the sanctuary — and Ms. Buckley in particular — have garnered sympathetic portrayals on “Oprah” and CNN. In 1998, Time magazine named Ms. Buckley a “Hero for the Planet.” Started on 200 acres, the sanctuary has grown into a $23 million enterprise, with three separate elephant herds and a suite of bespoke barns with penthouse luxuries like heated floors and touch-screen controls.
It is a far cry from Ms. Buckley’s humble beginnings, when as a young student in
“Tarra was the child that never moved away from home,” said Ms. Buckley, who eventually realized the performing life was not for them.
David Balding, a one-ring circus master, has known Ms. Buckley for more than 25 years and booked Tarra’s skating act while working as a producer at the Big Apple Circus during its first show at Lincoln Center.
“I think she’s embarrassed by that and talks a little bit about it as if she saw the light, as if she got religion,” Mr. Balding said.
Today, the refuge takes a holistic approach to its care. Last week a pair of elephants could be seen contentedly munching hay, observed by Elke Riesterer, a visiting healer who treats elephants with therapeutic touch, massaging them in a circular motion.
It is a deeply private institution, where elephants are allowed to form a feral culture — neither wild nor tame. The sanctuary is closed to the public; members are kept abreast of the animals’ progress through blog posts and videos but rarely granted tours.
Death comes often to the aging herd. This month, the sanctuary lost its 10th elephant in 15 years.
During that time, Ms. Buckley, Mr. Blais and a select group of caregivers have harbored 24 animals, expanding the sanctuary to comprise 2,700 acres of rolling
But as its reputation grew, there were reports that Ms. Buckley could be high-handed with workers, at times berating them for not performing to her expectations. The relationship between the sanctuary’s co-founders, which friends say was once romantic, also soured, and by last November, Mr. Blais had announced he was leaving.
“He and Carol weren’t seeing eye to eye,” said Leslie PonTell Schreiber, a former board member. “It got to the point where one or the other had to go.”
Last November, after a fund-raiser where Ms. Buckley was the guest of honor, the board placed her on leave while an interim chief executive interviewed staff members about her behavior.
“I felt more like they were headhunting,” said Melanie Blacketer, an office worker who was interviewed before being fired last March. “It wasn’t, ‘How are things going? ’ It was, ‘What have been your problems with Carol?’ ”
Ms. Buckley was fired on March 17, and eventually her supervised visits with Tarra were stopped. In her absence, Mr. Blais has taken over day-to-day operations. Ms. Buckley, who has started a new organization, does not deny that she could be tough on employees, saying simply, “The elephants come first.”
But it was the board’s decision to prohibit her from visiting Tarra, the elephant she bottle-fed as a calf, that has most alienated donors. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to kick you out of the sanctuary, but it’s another not to let her visit those elephants,” said Tory Braden, who says she has stopped donations. “You can’t just take an elephant off the reservation to go for a visit.”
One person who can relate to the rarefied misery of losing an elephant is Mr. Balding, whose painstaking efforts to find a suitable home for his own aging elephant, Flora, are the subject of the new documentary “One Lucky Elephant.”
Mr. Balding took Flora to Ms. Buckley’s sanctuary in 2004. After he went home, however, Flora, a powerful African elephant, went on an extended rampage, tearing up steel containment fences and trees.
Ms. Buckley diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder in the animal, and forbade Mr. Balding, 72, to ever visit her again, reasoning that his presence would slow Flora’s recovery.
“I have to let go,” said Mr. Balding, who during more than 20 years of living with Flora was known to dance with her at parties. “On the one hand, I’ve got to tell you, I’m sympathetic,” he said of Ms. Buckley. “She created this place. But talk about karma.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs