The Swannanoa Journal: Elephant Sanctuary

In partnership with Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center, Xpress presents The Swannanoa Journal, short audio essays on regional environmental sustainability issues, written and recorded by WWC students. This week, Aundrea Kinney talks about her experience in the Tennessee-based Elephant Sanctuary.

The tulip poplars were beginning to turn gold in the Tennessee mountains, and in the field below ambled three majestic elephants. I sat on a grassy hill with ten others from Warren Wilson College listening to Steve Smith, Director of Animal Husbandry, tell us about the Elephant Sanctuary.

An elephant named Jenny retired to the sanctuary in 1996 after a tough circus-life. Her leg was broken by a bull while on a breeding loan. The wound remained untreated for a year while she remained with the bull. She was then considered useless. Life continued in a trailer with a different circus before she was left at an animal shelter for cats and dogs. Soon after, the emaciated pachyderm was transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary where she was reunited with Shirley, an elephant that had been in the same circus as her when she was a baby. Shirley mothered her as if she was her own before Jenny was abruptly traded away. At their reunion they stayed awake all night, trumpeting back and forth with excitement and updating each other on the changes over the years. They were inseparable until Jenny’s death in 2006.

Elephants live in a matriarchal society, staying together with the same group of females their entire lives. They are social creatures, and after years of loneliness, those at the sanctuary create their own family groups.

All the elephants at the sanctuary were rescued from a circus or zoo. Several were confiscated by the U.S.D.A. due to inadequate treatment. All are female, originally captured from the wild. Like humans who have experienced extreme violence and neglect, many of the elephants have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Nine of the elephants at the sanctuary were sick when they arrived, having caught tuberculosis from human spectators. Smith said, “People mean well, but they don’t always know how to mean well.”
The Elephant Sanctuary helps elephants escape unfit environments by giving them new homes with plenty of room to explore. The sanctuary’s 2,700 acres comprise the nation’s largest habitat for elephants. They are licensed by the U.S.D.A. and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The temperate forests of Tennessee are full of healthy plants the elephants can forage. The African elephants especially enjoy pushing down tall pine trees and eating the bark and needles. One elephant’s diet is supplemented daily by 150 pounds of hay and an assortment of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Each elephant has her favorite foods.

The Tennessee climate is colder than any elephant’s natural habitat so all of the elephants have access to a barn. In the cold months, heat and blankets are provided, even to Shirley who only chooses to come inside on the coldest nights of the year. Her friends on staff bring blankets and heaters to her wherever she is on the property.

Back on the hill, several volunteers wonder why it would not be better to send the elephants back to their native lands.  Unfortunately, most elephants in Asia are now in captivity. In Africa they are at risk of poaching and recapture. For the abused elephants of the entertainment industry, the Elephant Sanctuary is their only hope for a semi-normal life, a life where they can make their own choices.

For more information or to learn how you can help visit

Click here for more from the Fall Semester 2011 Swannanoa Journal.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Webmaster
Mountain Xpress Webmaster Follow me @MXWebTeam

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.