Elephants are some of the most advanced creatures among us. They have incredibly complex physical and mental/emotional needs. Unfortunately, humans have used and abused wild animals (including elephants) for centuries.
Somehow, it was deemed acceptable to use animals for human entertainment. Animal entertainment puts both animal AND human lives at risk. From harmful training tactics including jabbing elephants with a sharp “bullhook” to insufficient living quarters, animals are being abused so that we can be entertained.
Thankfully, humans have gotten smarter and more sympathetic in recent years, with animal welfare associations, land preservations, and animal sanctuaries popping up worldwide. I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a wonderful organization housing retired captive elephants.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN is one of very few environments where elephants are able to retire from the poor treatment that they receive and are encouraged to go back to a natural way of elephant life. There are only two elephant sanctuaries in the United States (the other being PAWS in California) and only a handful throughout the planet.
At the TN sanctuary, human contact is kept to a minimum while they are still physically and emotionally cared for. The elephants are encouraged to be elephants.
Can I Visit The Elephant Sanctuary in TN?
As a true sanctuary, visitors are not permitted. It is important to remember that the elephants that live there reside in habitats, not exhibits. They are not on display.
However, curious minds are welcome to watch the elecams on the sanctuary website (www.elephants.com) where cameras are strategically placed to capture the elephants’ behavior. Elephant lovers can also visit the interactive Discovery Center in Hohenwald, TN.
How can I Contribute to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee?
Even though you can’t visit the sanctuary grounds, you can contribute by donating time or resources. You can:
- Jump on the wait list for 2020 volunteer days (where you’ll actually visit the sanctuary and help with a variety of tasks such as unloading hay, creating enrichment items for the elephants, cleaning, etc.)
- Become an eleAmbassador (read more below)
- Donate items on the sanctuary “wish list”
- “Adopt an elephant“
- Start a fundraiser
- Donate whatever you can
- Spread the word
Anyone can help by spreading the word about the sanctuary at any time. Talk to your friends about not visiting or giving money to any organizations that promote using animals for entertainment. Show people that there is a much better way to treat these animals by telling them about global sanctuaries. Explain what happens when wild animals are taken from the wild and expected to thrive in foreign environments and are trained with brute force and fear.
Becoming an eleAmbassador
Want to do MORE for the sanctuary? You can apply to become an eleAmbassador! EleAmbassadors are responsible for educating their local communities about the sanctuary.
As an eleAmbassador, I’ve spoken to kindergarten classes and retirement home groups, I’ve set up booths and tables at local community events, and I’ve told anyone who would listen about the sanctuary. Some eleAmbassadors have gone above and beyond the call of duty, hosting their own fundraising marathons and community gatherings.
The sanctuary equips its volunteers with the tools needed to thrive, such as powerpoint presentations, carefully selected media items, and a series of training programs that ensure we know what to say and how to say it so that the public can get on board.
Interested in becoming an eleAmbassador? Click here to submit your application!
Visiting the Elephant Discovery Center and Hohenwald, TN
The Elephant Sanctuary, and subsequently the Elephant Discovery Center, are located in a tiny town in Tennessee – but it’s not actually THAT difficult to get to.
If you want to learn more about the sanctuary and ask your burning questions, the Discovery Center is a fantastic place to spend an hour or two (even though you can’t visit the sanctuary grounds).
What’s at the Elephant Discovery Center?
The Discovery Center offers a fully interactive learning experience. Kids and adults alike are given the opportunity to hear, feel, and see the way elephants live in the wild vs. the way they live in captivity. Take a look at a visual representation of how big these magnificent animals can get. Hear the sounds they use to communicate in the wild. Read and learn about the history of elephants coming to America.
The Elephant Discovery Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 AM to 4 PM and will always have at least one staff member on site who can answer your questions about the sanctuary and about elephant behavior.
Getting to Hohenwald, Tennessee
Hohenwald, Tennessee, is a tiny town located about 85 miles southwest of Nashville. Nashville is BOOMING right now and is a fantastic city to travel to. You could easily spend a week in Nashville with your family and friends. If you do that and feel like taking a day trip, it can be pretty cheap to rent a car for a day or two for a beautiful trip down to Hohenwald, TN.
Here’s the best part – the drive! Coming from Nashville to Hohenwald, you can take the Natchez Trace, a scenic drive that runs from Nashville all the way to Natchez, Mississippi (over 440 miles)! The trace starts a few miles south of Nashville, so depending on where you’re staying, it may be 10-15 minutes out of your way to take this route, but it’s 100% worth it for the views.
On your way to the Discovery Center (or on your way back), you can take your time stopping at various lookout points and small hikes along the trace!
Some of the most picture-perfect places to stop are:
- Water Valley Overlook
- Jackson Falls
- Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area (3 mile hike!)
- Swan View Overlook (especially in the fall!)
Pro tip: don’t get stuck on the trace after dark. There are no lights, limited visibility, and there is abundant wildlife in the surrounding area!
Eating in Hohenwald, TN
Since the drive is a bit long (anywhere from 90-120 minutes depending on where you’re staying), you’ll probably want to grab a bite to eat in Hohenwald before you head back to Nashville.
There are ample fast food opportunities – McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, etc., but there are also a handful of tasty restaurants. You might want to try Junkyard Dog Steakhouse (open Wednesday – Sunday and a 30 second walk from the Discovery Center) for a southern-cooked meal, or hop over to Rock House Coffee Company for coffee and a pastry.
Why Elephants Need Our Help
If you are not yet convinced that elephants need your help, get this: elephants are a keystone species. That means that several other species rely on elephants, and their extinction would change the entire ecosystem.
In the past 100 years, there has been a 90% decline in the Asian elephant population and a 75% decline in the African elephant population, which is split into two species: Savanna and Forest. Herds that once consisted of 80 or more females have dwindled down to 15-20 females.
A lot of this is the result of capture for breeding and entertainment, but even more of it is the result of hunting for sport and ivory. There is a strong ivory demand in Asia, especially China, for ornaments and jewelry made from ivory. Part of the problem with this is that ivory hunters look for the biggest tusks and end up killing alpha male bulls, which puts a huge damper on breeding. Killing that one elephant can end an entire herd.
You might have thoughts along the lines of, “it’s okay if she was born into captivity,” but zoo elephants have not evolved enough to be comfortable in a small zoo environment. They might become contentedly lazy and lose the desire to travel 50 miles a day, but that is going to hurt them. Their feet will be destroyed, they will likely become overweight, and their inability to socialize will send them mad.
At the sanctuary, the elephants are encouraged to live as they would in the wild. They are never fully in contact with humans; the only physical touch they may receive is from a highly trained caretaker who needs to file down their nails. Otherwise, they are allowed to roam the 2,700 acres as they please. They can play in the water, converse with each other in their special language, and do as elephants do with no constraints. They are never chained, trained, or forced into anything, and you can help these efforts.
What Can You Do For Elephants?
You can help spread awareness of the dangers of keeping elephants in captivity, and help fund the medical attention that the hurt girls at the sanctuary need.
Don’t take your kids to the circus. Don’t visit zoos that are not AZA-certified and don’t take care of their animals. Don’t support wild animal entertainment programs.
Here’s what you CAN do:
- Instead of visiting the circus, watch videos of elephants behaving like elephants or watch the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee’s live stream!
- Never purchase goods made from ivory.
- Tell your friends, families, and coworkers about the sanctuary.
- If you live nearby, donate your Christmas trees to the Elephant Sanctuary.
This post was originally published on November 29, 2016, and updated on November 3, 2019. Please visit elephants.com for the most up-to-date information and news about The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.