Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard the news that circuses and other entities that train wild animals for our entertainment tend to be abusive.
Many circuses and other entities have been banned from using wild animals for entertainment, but there’s still work to do. Regardless, what happens to the animals after the aforementioned entities aren’t allowed to use them anymore? The lucky ones go to sanctuaries.
Are all animal entertainment entities bad? Am I telling you to stop taking your kids to the zoo? No, not necessarily – but there is something inherently wrong with capturing wild animals from their natural habitats, ripping them away from their families, and then repeatedly whipping and prodding them with sharp objects to get them to perform unnatural behaviors for human entertainment.
There 100% are some zoos in the United States (and around the world) who do everything they possibly can for their animals. They are AZA-accredited, they don’t operate captive breeding programs, and they have the BEST intentions – to educate the public and to keep the animals safe.
I’ve been a supporter of wildlife conservation and animal sanctuaries for a long time, but I’ll admit it – I still go to zoos on occasion.
However, when it comes down to it, I’d much rather support these sanctuary organizations who are allowing these captive animals who cannot return to the wild to live out the remainder of their lives as naturally as possible.
There are two official elephant sanctuaries in the United States. One is called PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) and is located in California, and the other is The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, located about 85 miles southwest of Nashville.
Today, we’re going to talk about what a fantastic, unique experience it can be to visit The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Full disclosure: I am an “eleAmbassador,” which is the official term for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee’s volunteer program.
Visiting the Elephant Discovery Center and Hohenwald, TN
The Elephant Sanctuary, and subsequently the Elephant Discovery Center, are located in a teeny tiny town in Tennessee. Say the name “Hohenwald” out loud, and someone might think you’re saying “hole-in-the-wall,” which is not an inaccurate way of describing this town.
Thankfully, though it’s definitely out there, Hohenwald and The Elephant Sanctuary are close to Nashville and are not THAT challenging to get to.
The first thing you need to know about the Elephant Sanctuary is that you cannot just drive up and visit the sanctuary grounds. Don’t click away yet! There are options.
The Elephant Sanctuary is a true sanctuary, meaning it is NOT a zoo, and the animals are not on exhibit. Most people will be able to purely visit the “Elephant Discovery Center” instead.
You can visit the sanctuary grounds either by changing your career path and becoming an elephant veterinarian or caregiver or by jumping on the waitlist for “volunteer days.”
During volunteer days, you’d be asked to do things like unload hay trailers (those things are heavy), paint the barns, remove brush from the fence line, etc. They are not typically activities that most people would enjoy, BUT you (usually) get the chance to step on the sanctuary grounds. There is no guarantee that you will see the elephants, since they are allowed to wander as they please, but you will have a pretty good chance.
If you want to learn more about the sanctuary and ask your burning questions, the Discovery Center is a fantastic place to spend an hour or two (even though you can’t visit the sanctuary grounds).
What’s at the Elephant Discovery Center?
The Discovery Center offers a fully interactive learning experience. Kids and adults alike are given the opportunity to hear, feel, and see the way elephants live in the wild vs. the way they live in captivity. Take a look at a visual representation of how big these magnificent animals can get. Hear the sounds they use to communicate in the wild. Read and learn about the history of elephants coming to America.
The Elephant Discovery Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 AM to 4 PM and will always have at least one staff member on-site who can answer your questions about the sanctuary and about elephant behavior.
Getting to Hohenwald, Tennessee
Hohenwald, Tennessee, is a tiny town located about 85 miles southwest of Nashville. Nashville is BOOMING right now and is a fantastic city to travel to. You could easily spend a week in Nashville with your family and friends. If you do that and feel like taking a day trip, it can be pretty cheap to rent a car for a day or two for a beautiful trip down to Hohenwald, TN.
Here’s the best part – the drive! Coming from Nashville to Hohenwald, you can take the Natchez Trace, a scenic drive that runs from Nashville all the way to Natchez, Mississippi (over 440 miles)! The trace starts a few miles south of Nashville, so depending on where you’re staying, it may be 10-15 minutes out of your way to take this route, but it’s 100% worth it for the views.
On your way to the Discovery Center (or on your way back), you can take your time stopping at various lookout points and small hikes along the trace!
Some of the most picture-perfect places to stop are:
- Water Valley Overlook
- Jackson Falls
- Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area (3 mile hike!)
- Swan View Overlook (especially in the fall!)
Pro tip: don’t get stuck on the trace after dark. There are no lights, limited visibility, and there is abundant wildlife in the surrounding area!
Eating in Hohenwald, TN
Since the drive is a bit long (anywhere from 90-120 minutes depending on where you’re staying), you’ll probably want to grab a bite to eat in Hohenwald before you head back to Nashville.
There are ample fast-food opportunities – McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, etc., but there are also a handful of tasty restaurants. You might want to try Junkyard Dog Steakhouse (open Wednesday – Sunday and a 30-second walk from the Discovery Center) for a southern-cooked meal, or hop over to Rock House Coffee Company for coffee and a pastry.
Suggested Hohenwald, TN Vacation Itinerary
Here’s how I would spend a trip to visit The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee if I was coming in from out of town and had a few days:
- Day 1: Fly into Nashville. Probably stay at a hotel near the airport. Rent a car. Drive to the “12South” neighborhood and have dinner at Edly’s BBQ.
- Day 2: Hit the Nashville highlights. Visit the Parthenon, walk down Broadway (but go early to avoid the drunks), try Hattie B’s hot chicken, etc. End the night by watching the sunset at Love Circle Park.
- Day 3: Have breakfast at Loveless Cafe. There may be a wait, but driving there will get you halfway to the sanctuary! Drive the remaining hour and 15 minutes or so to the sanctuary. If it’s early enough and you have time, take the Natchez Trace. Stop at various lookout points along the way. Visit the Elephant Discovery center. Have dinner at the Junkyard Dog Steakhouse. Drive back to your hotel in Nashville.
- Day 4: Head on home, unless you want to see more of Nashville!