Nestled on a secluded tract in the wooded hills of rural Tennessee is a sight that would likely startle an outsider, if outsiders were permitted to see it: the nation's largest sanctuary for old, sick and rescued elephants.
For the past 15 years, elephants who had spent lifetimes in zoos and circuses have found a place to retire, rest and roam, far from noisy audiences and free from cramped quarters.
Now, after an unexpected management change and a lawsuit filed by one of the original founders last year, their place of refuge is undergoing changes that may allow the world a better glimpse of their lives.
The sanctuary, which has never been open to the public, now wants to be a worldwide educational center for elephant care, while still remaining true to its mission to be a refuge for needy elephants.
"The sanctuary is and has always been about far more than just the people who work in it," said Rob Atkinson, the new CEO who arrived in Tennessee late last year. "It's about the elephants."
In 1995, two former elephant trainers, Carol Buckley and Scott Blais, started the sanctuary near Hohenwald, Tenn., about 85 miles southwest of Nashville, in part because Tennessee's temperate climate and vegetation made it a good home for African and Asian elephants.
With 2,700 acres of woodland and a 25-acre lake, the sanctuary has been home to 24 elephants since it opened, including several who were confiscated by authorities.
"There are so many elephants in really bad situations, if not terrible conditions," said Pat Derby, who runs the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society. "They are intelligent, brilliant and they need to be somewhere where they can express their natural behaviors and have companions."
Buckley ran the place from the beginning, but later became at odds with the board of directors over money matters. She also said in a lawsuit that she was ordered by a board member to delay telling a state wildlife agency that one of the elephants tested positive for tuberculosis.
The board, many of whom have been with the sanctuary for years, says that it negotiated with Buckley in hopes that she would remain with the sanctuary in another position, but that she wouldn't cooperate. She was fired in March and filed a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages and visitation rights to see one of the elephants.
Atkinson, the new CEO, said he hasn't been involved with the lawsuit, nor is he worried that Buckley's firing will hurt support for the sanctuary.
While the sanctuary will remain closed to the public, a new educational gallery is open in Hohenwald's downtown square, where people can meet with the caregivers and learn about the elephants. More than 12 new video cameras have been added throughout the grounds, which can be streamed live online or used in distance learning programs.
Atkinson said one goal is to bring more elephants to the sanctuary. Currently there are 12 Asian and two African elephants, but they have space enough for 50 more Asian elephants. Food and care cost about $1,000 per elephant each month, and there are currently 14 caregivers and 10 administrative staff workers.
The elephants -- all female because female elephants in the wild live in herds apart from the males -- spend their days foraging, bonding with the rest of the herd and cooling off in the lake. In wintertime, they can escape the cold into heated barns. The sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and inspections over the last three years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no violations.