Woman Who Cared for Captive Elephant for 36 Years Reunites with the Animal After 10 Years Apart

As a young woman, Carol Buckley bought baby elephant Tarra out of a neglectful situation, then trained her to be a star, eventually founding a sanctuary to house the animal after retirement

Tarra the elephant reunited with caretaker
Photo: Courtesy Carol Buckley

An 11-year custody battle for an elephant named Tarra recently ended at the Tennessee Supreme Court. Tarra is back with Carol Buckley, the animal's original caretaker and owner, who first met Tarra in 1974 when the elephant was an 800-pound baby.

"She's home, she's safe, she's under my care again — and forever this time," Buckley tells PEOPLE.

Before their recent reunion, Buckley and her 8-foot tall, 9,500-pound elephant had only seen each other twice since 2010 — the year Buckley was fired by the board of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, which Buckley co-founded in 1995.

At the time, Buckley convinced herself that somehow she would be reinstated, but she wasn't. Several months later, she filed suit for visitation with Tarra, which later changed to custody after most of the elephant caretakers she knew left the sanctuary. This November, legal appeals by The Elephant Sanctuary were exhausted, and the high court confirmed Buckley as the rightful owner of Tarra, who Buckley reunited with on November 18th.

On that day, 47-year-old Tarra was loaded onto a trailer so Buckley could drive her to her new home, Elephant Refuge North America, that Buckley had since founded on 850 lush acres in Attapulgus, Georgia. Tarra didn't immediately respond to Buckley. The Sanctuary staff took four hours to load the elephant on the trailer and Buckley says Tarra was distressed and enraged.

"She would be dangerous if she didn't recognize me," Buckley shares. "I needed to be careful. On that 10 hour drive, I was making my plan of what I would do and how I would do it."

They arrived at Elephant Refuge North America at 11 p.m. Buckley opened the gate on Tarra's trailer a little bit and moved away to an area where she could get to safety if needed. Tarra pushed the trailer door all the way open.

"As she took a couple of steps down. I said, 'Hey hun, it's me. You're home now,' and she looked at me, her eyes popped, and she just started talking her Tarra talk," Buckley describes the moment of Tarra's homecoming. "She comes down the ramp, looks around, she's smelling, she comes over to me, and I say, 'Honey, you can't touch me yet because I am afraid. I saw how you looked 10 hours ago. You looked like a monster, and you've got to give me a minute to accept that this is not dangerous.' "

Tarra the elephant reunited with caretaker
Courtesy Carol Buckley

Buckley walked into the elephant's new habitat, and Tarra followed her. They went over to greet Bo, another elephant in the sanctuary standing behind his fence. He reached his trunk over to Tarra.

"They're both talking together, and I'm standing 5 feet away. She turns to me, she gives me this big ol' Tarra smile with big eyes, and she raises her trunk out like an arm around my waist, she pulls me to her chest, and she just starts rumbling, like a cat purr. And I just start crying because this is it. This is my Tarra. Everything's fine, our relationship is not damaged, this is really good," Buckley adds of the moment.

"At that point, all is forgiven," she says of the protracted legal battle. "None of that matters. She's home with me. She's got a dog here that loves her. And Bo, he's such a gentleman. He's easy with her. The whole thing is just magic."

The two elephants have become buddies, and others can delight in their friendship by watching the refuge's EleCam.

Tarra and Buckley's story started when Buckley was an 18-year-old freshman at Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management in Moorpark, California. Buckley was working on her studies when she noticed an elephant walking in front of her rental house, a jute rope tied around the animal's neck. The man walking the elephant turned out to be the owner of a tire store chain that used the animal for advertising and publicity.

Tarra the elephant reunited with caretaker
Courtesy Carol Buckley

Buckley volunteered to come to the tire store to take care of the elephant, then called Fluffy. With only dog training experience and a past internship with a sea lion trainer, Buckley began training the baby elephant. She turned it into a job and dropped out of school.

She later spoke up about bettering the elephant's care at the tire store; she was rebuffed. Buckley took out a loan with her parents as co-signers to buy the elephant in 1976 for $25,000. To feed her elephant, Buckley needed 20 pounds of produce, grains, and hay every day, so she made a deal with local grocery stores to take their imperfect fruits and vegetables.

Renaming the elephant Tarra, Buckley performed with the elephant for eight years in circus shows and then did educational programs and offered elephant rides at zoos in summers for 12 years. Throughout it all, Tarra's intelligence was evident. One day Buckley put a paintbrush in Tarra's trunk. The elephant happily painted an abstract picture that appeared, upon closer inspection, to include letters from her name.

Buckley also trained Tarra for Hollywood. She appeared in 1982's Annie as the rollerskating elephant Carol Burnett rides and had other roles in film and commercials.

Tarra the elephant reunited with caretaker
Courtesy Carol Buckley

"She was a kid, and it was fun," Buckley says of Tarra's rollerskating Annie role. "They're no different than human children. They want to have fun. They just happen to be quite a bit larger. She was precocious and trusted me and was willing to try something."

When Tarra turned 21, the elephant age of adulthood, Buckley wanted a place for Tarra to live where she could roam freely, doing whatever she pleased without being on public display or performing. Buckley couldn't find such a place, so she bought a 112-acre farm in Hohenwald, Tennessee, for Tarra. Two years later, she and a co-founder formed The Elephant Sanctuary, a nonprofit dedicated to helping captive animals, which grew to be over 2,000 acres. Tarra was joined at the sanctuary by other elephants ready to retire and those rescued from abuse. These other animals became Tarra's friends.

The Elephant Sanctuary cited those friendships to explain why they went through such lengths to keep Tarra after Buckley left. "Over the decades at The Sanctuary, Tarra has developed relationships with many other elephants," CEO Janice Zeitlin said in a statement to PEOPLE. "Tarra and Sissy have been together at The Sanctuary for 21 years, and their special relationship has been well documented. It is recognized that elephants become strongly bonded to other elephants. The Elephant Sanctuary embraces the role as protector of these elephants and is committed to supporting their opportunities to bond with other elephants and to provide them the stability of lifetime care without the threat of loss of home and long-standing elephant relationships."

While Tarra has left the bonds from The Elephant Sanctuary behind, she has rekindled her deep friendship with Buckley and started new relationships with Elephant Refuge North America's residents. Buckley, 67, is thrilled to have Tarra back in her life. She talks to Tarra, and Tarra chatters back, just like old times.

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