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South Georgia Elephant Refuge To Welcome First Resident

Bo the bull elephant
Elephant Refuge North America (used with permission)
Bo the bull elephant

The excitement is building at Elephant Refuge North America just outside the small South Georgia town of Attapulgus. The protected habitat will soon welcome its first full-time resident.
Carol Buckley is the founder of the 850-acre refuge and the Elephant Aid International organization that oversees it. She also has a personal connection to the elephant who will soon be taking up residence there.

"I met Bo when he was 6 months old. And he had just been purchased by a woman who uses animals in TV and movie work."

It was an encounter that Buckley said was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as they say in the movies.

"He was tiny! Just this little, tiny guy, all by himself. And then I saw him again. Tara, my elephant and I were living and working at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin. And Bo was traveling with his family circus, the George Carden Circus."

Carden, Buckley said, by no means fit the widespread - and often mistaken - stereotype of the sadistic circus owner who abuses his animals.

"He was the one who took care of Bo and showed him in the ring and you could tell he had a great affection for that elephant."

We'll mention here that Carol Buckley is an internationally recognized authority in elephants, particularly their welfare, rescue and rehabilitation. That's why she set up Elephant Aid International and bought the site near Attapulgus as essentially a retirement resort for elephants who'd spent their lives in captivity. She and George Carden reconnected as the time neared for Bo to leave the circus life.

"This is all it takes for someone who really cares about their elephant is to see there's a viable, healthy alternative. George said to me, 'The first time I talked to you, I knew that you know elephants and that you'd take really good care of Bo and then you sent me the video of your place, and that was it!'"

For any elephant who has never known the wild, said Buckley, the sudden flush of freedom afforded by the refuge environment can be disconcerting. They have to learn how to make their own decisions. They have to learn how to become a more natural elephant.

"Here his yard is attached to the barn and he will have free-choice access to come in and out of his 7-acre habitat and into his barn anytime he wants. So that's the first thing that gets him accustomed to autonomy."

That's why she was especially pleased that Bo will not be coming alone when he arrives later this month. George Carden will be accompanying him.

"So the fact that this person who has raised him and taken care of him for almost 35 years is coming is perfect. And George said, 'As long as Bo needs me to stay, I'll stay.'"

As Bo adjusts to his newfound freedom, Buckley said his roaming range will be steadily increased until he has about 100 acres to ramble about, totally unincumbered.

"This is your life; these are your choices. You tell us what you want to do and how you want to do it."

Those choices will ultimately include the option of interacting with the refuge's future pachyderm residents. That recruitment, expalined Buckley, is a prime goal of the project. That and reinforcing the fences around the property. Still, she was quick to stress that the whole idea is to provide a calm, relaxing environment for elephantine retirees. It's not the kind of place where you take the kids to see the elephants. Although Buckley does plan to set up a web cam so people can view the animals remotely.

"The goal is the elephants are living as close to nature - as close to natural - as they can. They're not expected to entertain, they're not expected to educate, they're not expected to be on exhibit. All of that is done by other organizations, like zoos and circuses. So the 3 actually fit well together."

And now, Buckley's dream is about to come true.

"This, Elephant Refuge North America, every aspect of this has been intentionally designed. So I'm very excited about this."

As excited as she hopes Bo the bull elephant is upon settling in to his new home.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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