We were told that we would not see any of the elephants during our volunteer day at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN. No elephants, no how. The dozen or so of us who were picked out of a lottery of dedicated ellie fanatics were eager to work, not have a zoo experience. We know that The Sanctuary’s mission is to provide a private refuge for retired Asian and African elephants where they are no longer on display. With a 2,700-acre property including forests, fields, hills, valleys, streams, ponds, and a lake and agreeable climate, what we have here is an ideal safe and peaceful retreat to retired elephants. We came prepared to do hard labor in the high 80-degree heat, and under the hot simmering sun. For centuries , these delightful creatures, who possess a heart, a soul, family devotion, and a playful side, have worked hard to entertain humans of all ages and they are done.
Volunteer and Outreach Manager Todd Montgomery met us on a recent Saturday morning at The Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald, roughly two miles from The Sanctuary’s elephant habitats, and after a quick group introduction, he went right into The Sanctuary’s history, what we can expect from the day’s events and with the help of the power point presentation, introduced us to the elephants in their care. “Because of volunteers like you,” he says, “the center and The Sanctuary are kept in order, showing grounds well-maintained, and attractive.” The center is the first thing visitors see, it’s a place where school field trips, drop-in visitors, groups of all kinds come to visit and learn about the declining elephant population, knowing and respecting that they will not physically see the resident elephants. The place should mirror the attention that’s put into health and feeding of the elephants in The Sanctuary. We didn’t need any more justification for being here. We were ready to go to work—and our first job was to be done right outside the back door.
In their backyard Outdoor Classroom, we weeded, clipped overgrowth, and mulched the bare spots. This one was easy-peasy, and we were done in an hour or so. This time gave us the opportunity to get to know one another, see how well we worked together, and so made it easy to divide up into carpool groups for our trip to The Sanctuary, about 15 minutes away. I thought we might be blindfolded, but no; the caravan of cars followed Todd’s pick-up like bees to honey.
Next up? Clip banana tree leaves to be used as rollup material for super-sized elephant tamales. 100 or so leaves would do, and they were snipped and placed in the pick-up in no time. Todd kept praising our work, made sure we were hydrated and patiently answered every question – ones he’s been asked over and over. But he understands that we will go back home and share our experiences, and so many initiate new members in the elephant fan club. All that talk about tamales got us hungry, so we sat under shady trees and unpacked our own non-perishable lunches: crackers, pretzels, granola bars, and high protein foods to keep us powered up for the afternoon. We knew there’d be real work to come.
Our next task was to level off areas for the elephants to step into, a natural material culled from the Tennessee hills called “chert.” Resembling yellow clay, the chert would eventually solidify as the elephants packed it down under their weight, but it would never get as hard as a cement surface which is tough on the elephants’ undersoles. There was such a nice, jolly comradery building among us, and many in the group had wished there’d be more opportunities to do this.
The Sanctuary offers these volunteer Saturdays to members only and the names are chosen in a lottery system that matches the applicant and available date. One day volunteer events are offered to individuals, and multi-day placements to colleges and universities. It is immensely popular, in fact, a few in our group mentioned that they’d been trying to do this for a few years and finally got in. Colleen Rossi, a member of our group, and a teacher from New Jersey has been championing The Elephant Sanctuary in her fourth-grade classroom since 1988. She was thrilled to see her students’ quilt hanging in the visitor center. “My classroom was outfitted with brand new technology called ISDN lines,” she explained. “This was all before Skype and FaceTime. I became so passionate about The Elephant Sanctuary that I decided to teach my entire school, not just my fourth-grade class. My students and I usually put on a schoolwide assembly to teach the other students about The Sanctuary. Ever year my students collect loose change to help feed an elephant for a day.” Rossie is looking forward to her new class this year and says, “Yes, I will teach them about The Elephant Sanctuary. And then they, as students, will teach other classes.” That’s what it’s all about.
But back to work. The “chain gang” experience we’d hoped for was next. Literally. Before us was a chain link fence so tightly bound with honeysuckle vines that eventually the fence would be pulled down from the pressure. We were given small clippers, then as Todd pointed out areas ripe with poison ivy, we clipped and clipped until every vine was cut down. It wasn’t that the elephants would escape with a fallen fence, explained Todd, but that intruders could make their way in. A separate system of more heavy-duty fencing located within the chain link fence served to keep the elephants within their safe-spaces. The final job: create an elephant “enrichment” toy from bamboo stalks and leaves. We filled the inside of a car tire with the greens and stuck the stalks into holes cut into the side. We were entranced at the thought of an elephant playing with the tire. Who’d a thunk?
By 2:30, we’d completed the “to do list,” and thus were rewarded with a hike up to lookout point. There, the sky opened, the valley lay before us, and way, way in the distance were the shapes of elephants. We were thrilled. The hill we stood on was sacred as three former elephants were buried below our feet, with 3 large white stones to mark their graves.
We will never undo the damage done to these beautiful creatures but seeing them thrive and find comfort in the presence of other elephants, in a safe and caring environment…now, there’s something very right about it all.
To learn more about the Sanctuary, membership, and volunteer opportunities, please visit www.elephants.com.