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Packing my trunk for elephant road trip

By Keith Oppenheim

A truck brings elephants Minnie and Lottie to the sanctuary at the end of the first journey from Illinois.


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.


Behind the Scenes

HOHENWALD, Tennessee (CNN) -- "Keith, the Zahn show wants you to ride with two elephants from Illinois to Tennessee."

Assignments at my workplace, CNN's Chicago, Illinois, bureau, often come in such blunt fashion, but that one from "Paula Zahn Now" really got my attention.

"I'm doing what?" I asked.

It was no joke. I was being sent out the door to follow two female elephants named Billie and Frieda -- all the way from the Wisconsin border, to a remote spot in central Tennessee 600 miles away -- a place called the Elephant Sanctuary.

The Elephant Sanctuary, I would learn, is a 2,700-acre home for aging elephants in Hohenwald, Tennessee. It has been around for 10 years, maintaining a clear philosophy that elephants too often are neglected by zoos and circuses and need space as well as family to thrive.

As sanctuary co-founder Scott Blais put it: "I think the biggest thing we can provide for them here is the opportunity to evolve into who they are and who they are supposed to be."

Billie and Frieda were part of a group of eight females from the same elephant herd that would be moved to the sanctuary over a course of two weeks -- in fact, they were the last pair. The eight were former circus performers owned by the Hawthorn Corp.

A Hawthorn facility in northern Illinois rents out elephants to circuses. In the past few years, Hawthorn got into trouble with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, receiving numerous citations for not providing proper veterinary care for its elephants -- and for handling them in such a way that the animals were stressed and traumatized.

In 2004, Hawthorn entered into an agreement with the department to pay a $200,000 fine and to donate its elephants. The Elephant Sanctuary was the main beneficiary of that agreement.

The folks at Hawthorn declined an interview. Instead, they released a statement saying they were focused on getting the elephants "the best possible care." We stood outside the Hawthorn property, and from a distance, watched as Billie and Frieda were loaded onto a trailer.

It didn't take long. And the Elephant Sanctuary's Blais, who would escort these giant mammals to their new home, seemed pretty happy.

"What we're seeing from both of them is they're really, really calm," he said. "Frieda was talking a few minutes ago, and that's a great sign."

The trailer, I should note, didn't look unusual at all from the outside. But on the inside, there was Billie up front, munching on apples, carrots and hay. Frieda was in the back, all 11,000 pounds of her. They slept standing and didn't seem to mind the ride.

"So they're comfortable back there?" I asked.

"Oh, they're very comfortable," Blais said. "We have a heating unit that keeps the trailer right around 60 degrees."

Family reunion

Blais had to make quite a few stops. Elephants eat and drink -- a lot. Later that night, I don't think many folks at the truck stop in northern Indiana had any idea that when Blais was pulling a hose up to his truck, he was giving two elephants a nice big drink of water.

Down the road, he pulled into an abandoned rest area. Here, the humans driving the truck, and the elephants in the back, would get a few hours' sleep.

Next day, at noon, I sat in the cab of the semi as it pulled up the long driveway of the Tennessee sanctuary. Interestingly, the public is not allowed on the premises. It's much more of a refuge, than a zoo.

Instead, live pictures of the elephants stream on the sanctuary's Web site, one major way to bring in donations. In fact, while entering -- we were live on the Web.

I got out and took a look at the landscape, dotted with a herd of pachyderms. Suddenly, a story I had been reporting on for a day and a half was just beginning to make sense to me.

The other members of the herd were lining up -- sensing new arrivals. I thought to myself, "This is going to be a great family reunion."

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