Tarra the elephant celebrates 50th birthday with friends, guardian

Feb. 15—ATTAPULGUS- It was a cool, sunny afternoon at Elephant Refuge North America on Wednesday; and like most days, the three elephants who had retired to the safe haven were eating bamboo. Those passing by the tucked-away sanctuary may have mistaken it for an ordinary day, but a celebration was taking place.

Tarra — an 8-foot-tall, 9,700-pound Asian elephant — was celebrating her 50th birthday with her best friends, Bo and Mundi, and of course, her long-time guardian and founder of ERNA, Carol Buckley.

To celebrate the milestone, Tarra was gifted with bamboo to nosh on throughout the day.

As Tarra enjoyed her bamboo, Buckley reminisced on her time with Tarra.

"I met her when she was 1 year old and trained her," Buckley said. "We traveled around the U.S. and overseas for about 10 years and decided it was not the life we wanted."

Buckley said she and Tarra tried other options, including the zoo and other performances, but none of them worked.

"We then started an elephant sanctuary when she was 21 years old," Buckley said. "She started to set standards, as she was the youngest elephant to ever be retired and the only performing elephant to ever be retired."

Being in a more natural setting, Tarra was able to show the world how the great outdoors impacted her health and well-being.

"She and I lived at that facility for 15 years and there was an unplanned separation and she finally came back to me here (in Attapulgus) two years ago," Buckley said.

Seeing Tarra hit this milestone was a huge moment for Buckley, who explained elephants in captivity often have much shorter lifespans.

"Elephants live to be 70-80 years old, but in captivity, they aren't so lucky," she said. "In captivity, the records indicate Asian elephants live to be about 40 in a zoo environment and African elephants live to be 7 in a zoo environment."

Buckley said the shorter lifespan is partially due to the elephants' activity being restricted.

"They don't have room to move and they don't have the opportunity to make their own decisions, so everything is dictated for them," she said. "In cold climates, they are restricted to barns."

Buckley explained that is difficult for animals who are born to walk 20-30 miles a day.

"You can imagine there can be a lot of issues if their mobility is limited," she said.

Buckley listed digestion, foot abscesses, mental disorders, and arthritis as some of the primary issues elephants face when restricted.

However, Tarra has overcome all of the odds.

She is currently on her fifth of six sets of teeth she will gain over her lifetime.

"Her last set she will get in probably ten years and those will last her another 20 years," Buckley said.

With her teeth coming in, Buckley said Tarra is in incredibly great health for her age and is creating another teaching moment in the industry about how elephants thrive in the correct environment.

However, Buckley said she still keeps a close eye on her loving companion.

"As she loses her last set of teeth, we have to look at what are they eating and whether it is chewed up enough," she said. "Older elephants that are eating the wrong diet with no teeth can get colic and that will kill them."

For now, though, Buckley and Tarra just want to celebrate.

"It's a relief to see her make it to 50 and as far as I'm concerned, we've got another two decades," Buckley concluded. "She's at least going to live to be 70."