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my buick bucket list trip: volunteering at the elephant sanctuary in tennessee

Elephant Sanctuary t-shirt

Now that we had learned all about Tara, Shirley, Tange, Flora, Sissy, Winkie, Misty, Minnie, Liz, Ronnie, Debbie, Billie and Frieda, we felt personally invested in their future and were eager to get back on the road in the morning to return to The Elephant Sanctuary for our volunteer day. 

There were about 15 of all, so we divided into two groups and Todd explained what we would be doing. The first group would be scraping and painting the protective contact wall and the second would be cleaning debris and removing nails from old wooden boards so they could be used for heating. These were not glamorous jobs but they were necessary for providing the best environment for the elephants.

Todd asked me if we would take a few people in the Encore – the car was as big a hit as the elephants themselves. We piled in and sludged through the muddy roads of rural Tennessee – a ride made much smoother thanks to the Encore’s all wheel drive.

Elephant Sanctuary Encore

Once we arrived at the Sanctuary, we spotted African elephants Flora and Tange, who reminded us why we were there.

We got a chance to see what the girls eat – lots of fruits, vegetables and supplements – and we heard funny stories about their individual preferences.

One loves bananas, another likes barbecue sauce and pickles. Tarra peels her oranges and squishes her food. Tange falls asleep in a food coma after sugary cereals. Peanut butter is a universal favorite.

Elephant Sanctuary food

You can get to know all the girls through my USA Today slideshow, which you can watch here.

We spent the morning scraping and painting, with Flora and Tange checking in periodically to make sure our work was up to par. We had some great conversations, felt like we were making a difference and then … someone made a comment about immigrants that was so jarring in this place of compassion, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. This led to a heated discussion about religion and same sex marriage. How could someone who cares enough about animals to spend the day working in the hot sun for them be so intolerant of people who were different than her?

Of course, this woman was one of the passengers in my car so when it was time for lunch, she got into the back seat and apologized. I explained to her why her beliefs were so offensive and she actually listened and asked questions and I told her she should go home and think about all of this. She said she would.

Maybe the Middle East peace talks should take place in the Encore.

Anyway, we all sat together for lunch which, for Michael and me, consisted of cupfuls of cereal and pastries we took from the hotel breakfast. We couldn’t find a grocery store in Tennessee Mills so we had to be creative.

Elephant Sanctuary lunch

After our not-so-nutritious meal, it was time to switch jobs. We got our little group back in the Encore and headed over to a different part of the Sanctuary to start cleaning up debris. I pulled a couple of nails out of old pieces of wood, which took much longer than you would think, and felt good, knowing the elephants would stay warm in their heated barn during the winter.

Since we came home, we’ve been following the girls closely on the Ele-cam, which is so addicting. I’m planning to keep spreading the word about the amazing work the Elephant Sanctuary is doing and hope you’ll check out their website, which is full of great information, pictures and ways to help.

Buick cardboard elephant

The Elephant Sanctuary also does long-distance education programs and can provide presentations to classes and groups via teleconferencing. You may want to share this idea with teachers and Scout leaders because kids will love it.

We left the Elephant Sanctuary sweaty and exhausted, but content and proud to have served these magnificent creatures in some small way. The Encore, dusty and caked with mud, had also served us well and was ready to take us on a whole new journey to the Grand Ole Opry.


  1. So much envy over here! It’s great to see fellow animal lovers in action.

  2. That is pretty neat. I always like looking at the elephants at our local zoo!

  3. Very cool! Volunteering always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. 🙂

  4. Animals, world peace and creative cooking, all in one place. Brava!

  5. This must have been an amazing experience. I love animals and elephants are certainly regal and beautiful.

  6. I fell in love with elephants and am pissed off that a political party adopted that symbol. Why didn’t THEY take the jackass?

  7. Who knew that elephants liked so many different types of foods?

  8. Considering the lunch and the loudmouth, it’s obvious you’re pretty good at making the best of a not-so-great situation. Quite admirable, my friend. So, too, is your work for the elephants. Such grand animals.

    And the Encore? Sheesh… Seems like a pretty awesome little vehicle.

  9. This must have been fantastic! I’d love to do something similar – with gorillas.

    • Lois Alter Mark says:

      My husband and I just watched some videos of people interacting with gorillas — am ready to make that my next trip. Want to come?

  10. Wow what an amazing experience. I am sure it was very rewarding!

  11. That’s so cool! I never would have thought about doing something like this, so inspirational!

  12. What lovely animals elephants are, they’re so giant, but they’ve also got a big heart.

  13. My Mom (93 yrs young) collects elephants…..so this was especially sweet for me! Thanks for sharing your special day!

  14. What a great experience and good for you for speaking your mind.

  15. I love the idea that they do classes and long distance education pieces. What a great way to spread the word about protecting these beauties! My favorite part of this story though? You told her to go home and think about it! So, technically, you sent her to time-out! I soooo love that! Maybe we need a bigger, adult version of time-out corner… Something to consider!

  16. What a great experience! And I’m glad you were able to speak with her and both offer your perspectives to one another.

  17. Elephants just seem to me like gentle giants. So cool!

  18. My husband and I are planning a trip to Nashville next spring. I think I might like to do this. I had no idea such a place existed.
    I work very hard at being tolerant of everyone’s views and concentrating more on what we have in common. It is bad enough when someone is offensive but in a group of people you don’t know and while volunteering, just awful.
    The Encore is adorable!

  19. It’s so interesting to hear how they have distinct likes with their diet. It’s kinda cute!

  20. Jennifer Williams says:

    I would love to do that, I have two favorite animals – elephants and giraffes. Love them all but those are my favorites. Being able to volunteer and help them would be an amazing experience.

    • Lois Alter Mark says:

      I love giraffes, too! There’s a place in Africa where you can interact with giraffes — that is definitely on my list!

  21. I’ve never volunteered at a place like that before, but it looks like it would be a great thing to do.

  22. So jealous! I want to go play with an elephant!! There’s a baby elephant at my local zoo that is the cutest thing ever. My son wants to ride her.

  23. How awesome! I have never seen an elephant in real life! Going to add that in my bucket list!

  24. I had no idea TN had this elephant sanctuary! What a great place to volunteer at!

  25. Amazing animals. Love the great stuff they are doing there.

  26. What a neat experience – and I am positive you will enjoy the Grand Ole Opry

  27. We have an elephant sanctuary in our hometown too but it is not open to the public.I have a friend that works there so I got to go…..so cool!!

  28. Barbecue sauce and pickles? Sounds like something I would eat…haha. I would SO love to see elephants up close like this!

  29. I bet it was amazing getting to feed elephants! They are such docile creatures.

  30. You KNOW how I feel about eles, Lois! This sounds like a wonderful day! I hope to go there one of these days to do what you did! I watch the elecam almost every day!! Those sweet girls are finally lucky enjoying their last years ( hopefully lots) doing what they were always supposed to do…roam free and be free of horrible abuses that they were subjected to from circuses (YUCK!!) Thanks for bringing more education to people about the wonderful Elephant Sanctuary.

    You know, the original founder, Carol Buckley has started a chain free campaign in India and is rescuing loads of eles from abuses and chains over there! She even has a volunteer week next week where you can help her un chain and release more eles! I am SO tempted to do it!!! Wanna go with me?

  31. What an amazing experience!

  32. Coolchillmom says:

    I really have been enjoying your series in this
    What a great bucket list item!

  33. Oh elephants, so cute!

  34. Ann Bacciaglia says:

    I find the list of food they like interesting…..bbq sauce, pickles. Not the kind of thing I thought elephants would like lol.

  35. I love the ideamof this trip. Anything but your average vacation! I would to do something like this but with Penguins and Owlsmthey are my favorkte! Can’t wait to hear more!

  36. How lucky! I would have loved to have gotten to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary! I love elephants!

  37. Such amazing creatures! I hope I get to experience something like this one day.What a wonderful accomplishment!

  38. Even though elephants are so huge, I find their presence so peaceful and calming. What a great experience you got to have!

  39. I love elephants, this looks like an opportunity of a lifetime

  40. It must be fun hanging out with elephants. I would love to

  41. This sounds like an amazing trip. I have a friend that is just returning from the Elephant rescue sanctuary in Thailand. I haven’t spoken to him about it yet because he is still on his flight but it looked like he had a wonderful trip from what he posted on Facebook.

  42. This looks completely amazing.

  43. Elephants are such amazing creatures! I would love to be able to spend the day with them like this!

  44. Awesome work. You were blessed to be able to do it.

  45. Thank you for taking time out of your life for these animals! The sanctuary seems like such a wonderful place and its great they take on volunteers to help.

  46. This sounds like a great idea. It is not every day that kids get to learn about elephants.

  47. I love elephants. They represent so many beautiful things in spirituality 🙂

  48. Oh wow I would love to do this. Looks like such an amazing experience and so glad it was so fulfilling for you!

  49. I can only imagine what a great time you must have had! I would love so much to spend a whole day with elephants.

  50. I had no idea they had something like this! What a fun way to volunteer!

  51. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    Please take me with you next time! This is something I would love to do!

  52. Would you believe I’ve never seen an elephant in real? I would love to at some point though. That last picture is so cute…looks like the elephant is smiling at you two. 🙂

  53. What an interesting food list. I would have never thought they’d eat things like that. I bet it was fun interacting with the elephants, and learning all about them.

  54. This. Is. Awesome! Take me with you next time?

  55. Awww… I love elephants! That must have been so rewarding!!

  56. My brother volunteered at a monkey sanctuary and it was an equally fulfilling experience. I can only hope to do so soon!

  57. What an experience! Do you know if there are an sanctuaries anywhere in Texas?

  58. This is so cool. I love elephants. Never knew about these sanctuaries. What a cool thing to be able to do!

  59. I love all elephants. Well, I love all animals. We volunteer as much as we can and I love the feeling of giving back!

  60. This is awesome !!! Volunteering always gives you that bubbly good feeling inside <3 Esp for the animals.

    Thanks for sharing.
    ~ Lu

  61. People don’t realize that off color remarks are not harmless. I try real hard to never participate or get caught up in a situation where I’ll have no choice but to butt in and set them straight. There was a time in my life when I enjoyed using words to make the person being rude feel as small as the other they thought was beneath them and were offending. I’m not quite as harsh or as ruthless on a person as I used to be, but I still fight for the underdog!

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