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After 35 years of being alone, Mundi the elephant gets a massive home and two new friends

There has been increasing concern for the welfare of animals in captivity, resulting in bigger sanctuaries and spaces for different wildlife.

Such is the case for Mundi the elephant, who was moved from the Mayaguez Zoo in Puerto Rico to the Elephant Refuge North America sanctuary in Attapulgus, Georgia.

The 41-year-old female elephant was orphaned at a young age, captured, and sold to the zoo. The animals housed at the zoo were in such bad shape that they were being moved to various sanctuaries under an order from the US Department of Justice.

Mundi the elephant was the zoo’s major attraction. Her departure prompted so much controversy that armed federal guards were dispatched to see her off the island. She was so popular that people lined the streets to say goodbye.

Carol Buckley, the founder and CEO of Elephant Aid International (EIA), came to Puerto Rico to escort Mundi. The rescue and relocation were carried out by Wild Animal Sanctuary and EAI, with assistance and funding provided by World Animal Protection (WAP).

Mundi the elephant’s new home is certainly idyllic. After living in the zoo for 35 years with no other elephants, Mundi met Bo and Tarra, with whom she’s now sharing 850 acres. She was first housed in a separate enclosure, but she and the other elephants could see each other, and they started getting along quickly.

Buckley said, “I’m kind of in shock. I wanted to feed Mundi and Tarra close together. And so, I fed Tarra over here. She picked up her food and brought it right over to the fence-line here so she could be eating with Mundi. So, you tell me what that means. I think that is really good.” 

Soon, Mundi the elephant was no longer separated from the others. Tarra immediately acted as a big sister and mentor to Mundi, while Bo became her playmate. They spend a lot of time together and the public can watch their interaction and learn about their behavior on the refuge’s YouTube EleCam. The sanctuary can accommodate 10 individual elephants at any one time.

Buckley first envisioned the Georgia sanctuary after meeting Tarra in 1974, when the elephant was less than a year old. At the time, Tarra belonged to the owner of a tire store, who used her to advertise the place.

Buckley ultimately became an advocate for elephants worldwide and designed the retirement home in Attapulgus to address their needs. Attapulgus was selected as the location for the refuge because its climate allows the elephants to be outdoors most of the time, almost year-round.

The refuge has a big mud wallow, rolling hills, spring-fed lakes, forests, pastures, creeks, and streams. There is also a barn where the elephants can sleep in when it gets cold.

The barn has sand floors four feet deep to avoid arthritis and other ailments common to elephants who stand on concrete most of the time.

Phil Kiracofe, a retired law enforcement officer from Tallahassee, helped build the refuge before the arrival of Bo, the sanctuary’s first elephant.

He recalled the first moment he saw Bo, and said, “When he stuck his head out the side door of that trailer and started stepping out, I said, ‘My God, he’s huge!’ He’s just such a regal animal. I mean, the guy is so impressive. A great, easygoing personality.”

Kiracofe explained that the refuge’s volunteers do not have direct contact with the elephants. Volunteers can observe the elephants from afar while they’re working. This is one of many protections that separate the Attapulgus refuge from others that claim to protect animals, and yet exploit them for profit.

Kiracofe said, “Just to watch him and see how he started interacting with Tarra when she arrived sometime later, and now to watch how both of them interact with Mundi. It’s really fascinating to watch.”

For his efforts to protect elephants, Kiracofe was named “Volunteer of the Year” in 2022 by Elephant Aid International.

Elephants are intelligent and social animals. They particularly respond to reunions, the birth of a new calf, or the death of a loved one. They are capable of complex emotions and Buckley explained that this sensitivity is one of the reasons why the preserve is off-limits to casual visitors.

She said, “They can communicate with other elephants three miles away, through the air, through the ground 30 miles, they feel all the vibration and energy that comes into their area. Which is one of the reasons we’re not open to the public because I can’t control people’s energy. I can say how I want you to be, that you stay calm and loving and don’t have expectations and don’t go, ‘Oh, the poor thing’ because they feel all of that. So, it’s best for them that it’s somewhat controlled.” 

Now the refuge has become a haven for Mundi the elephant as well. “The goal has always been that when she [Mundi] is comfortable, then she will be out in the 100 and the 750 with them [Bo and Tarra]. But it would be inappropriate for us to rush it because we want to see them together….our job is to observe,” Buckley said.

Buckley believes that opening the reserve to the public would not be beneficial to the elephants. Instead, she brings in key people, including reporters, to get the message out. The goal is to get people to understand the elephants, why they are in captivity, and what people can and should do for them.

A select group of people who can reach the masses can help educate the public and bring awareness to the plight of elephants worldwide.

Mundi stands 8 feet tall and weighs 8,000 pounds. She reportedly loves eating pineapple, watermelon, and broccoli. Her sad history is common to elephants all over the world.

She was one of 63 African savannah elephants orphaned during a mass culling by the government of Zimbabwe in 1984, when she was just two years old. Millionaire Arthur Jones subsequently bought the 63 baby elephants and transported them to his property in Ocala, Florida.

Unfortunately, in 1986, the young herd was separated and sold to zoos, circuses, and other private individuals.

In 1988, Mundi the elephant was moved to Mayaguez Zoo in Puerto Rico. For 35 years, she lived in isolation in a small, enclosed space, and was on display for visitors during the day, while performing tricks and posing for pictures.

In 2017, the zoo was closed to the public after the impact of Hurricane Maria. In 2018, the US Department of Agriculture canceled the zoo’s exhibitor’s license after citing dozens of violations, including the lack of veterinary care that resulted in the death of a tiger, expired food and medications, and a failure to protect animals from extreme heat and physical hazards.

The Puerto Rican government announced the permanent closure of the zoo in February 2023 and an agreement with the Department of Justice to relocate the animals. ERNA was asked to accept Mundi, and they agreed to take her in.

Releasing elephants kept in captivity back into the wild in Africa was not an option. While they may retain their wild nature and instinctive behaviors, spending most of their life in captivity likely inhibited their ability to successfully integrate into a fully wild environment, where they would have to find food on their own.

While Mundi the elephant’s relocation may be a success, countless wild animals all over continue to be exploited by the entertainment, tourism, and travel industries.

Buckley’s work goes far beyond Mundi the elephant and the refuge in Georgia. In Asia, shackling elephants in captivity is a common practice that cripples the animals.

Elephant Aid International worked hard to establish chain-free corrals that eliminate the need for chains. In 2015, EIA convinced the government of Nepal to forego chains at 15 elephant facilities, which helped free 54 elephants from their chains.

Buckley is particularly grateful to the people of Puerto Rico for giving Mundi the elephant a chance at a better life.

She said, “We look forward to caring for her and giving her the life she deserves.” The elephant lives in paradise now, with new friends and family, both elephants and humans.

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