HOHENWALD, Tenn. - More than a dozen elephants make their home in middle Tennessee and their caretaker said the animals are doing just fine.
The famous elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald is in transition. Co-founder Carol Buckley said she was fired earlier this year from the sanctuary after 15 years. Some now wonder if the elephants are still well-cared for in her absence.
The sanctuary's other co-founder Scott Blais granted a NewsChannel 5 crew exclusive access to the facility. He wanted people to know that 15 years after the sanctuary opened the elephants are healthy and happy.
"We want this to be their place. This is for elephants and we need to protect that," said Blais.
There are currently 15 elephants - all female living at the sanctuary. News crews are rarely allowed behind the scene access. Blais took NewsChannel 5 reporter Nick Beres and photojournalist Nathan Sharkey deep into the park on four-wheelers to observe the elephants in their habitat.
"The ground rules are pretty simple: No petting, no talking, no socializing, no interacting with elephants in any way," said Blais.
The female elephants tend to pair up - Misty and Delory are both Asian elephants and best friends. Blais walks up to the couple with a basket of fruit.
"They are like two little school kids - silly, playful all the time. I don't think either ever has a bad day," said Blais.
Along one of the trails the crew also encounters Shirley - a 9,600 pound, 62-year-old Asian elephant rescued from a circus. Observers notice her right hind leg is shorter than the other.
"She was chained up at the circus and another elephant attacked her from behind and fractured her leg," said Blais.
The leg never healed properly.
Not far beyond Shirley was the sanctuary's most famous odd couple Tara the elephant and her canine companion Bella.
"Oh, they're best buds all the time," said Blais.
The tenderness between the two is amazing. Tara actually reaches out to touch Bella's paw. Then they get up to play. Tara loves people and takes off after the NewsChannel 5 photographer who sits on the back of the four-wheeler. She's not charging, just chasing.
Blais said most of the elephants are just curious. Other than sanctuary staffers they don't see many people. Elephants prefer each other's company. Blais said the sanctuary is all about life for elephants without human expectations. They are free to do as they please.
The elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald is a not-for-profit founded in 1995. It is the nation's largest natural habitat specifically for endangered Asian and African elephants.