Dog and Elephant Teach Love, Loyalty

February 27, 2012

Most of the time we are too busy or too numb to see the wonders that surround us. And the wonders do abound, ranging from momentary marvels to life-changing events.

But one such wonder was strong enough to capture world-wide attention the past couple of years, thanks to the viral exchange of Facebook messages and YouTube videos. Yes, an engaging story of an unlikely friendship touched our hearts and gave us a sense of hope.

The story of Bella and Tarra took place at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a 2,700 acre refuge established in 1995 for old, sick or needy Asian and Indian elephants removed from zoos and circuses. Elephants brought to the Sanctuary live in a natural habitat, are well fed, tended by loving caregivers and receive expert veterinary care. They roam freely throughout the Sanctuary and get to live, for the first time in their lives, like elephants.  

Inherently social creatures, these rescued elephants typically bond with other elephant residents. But in 2003, a most unusual friendship occurred between Tarra, an 8,700 pound Asian elephant, and Bella, a stray dog who wandered into the habitat.

Bella and Tarra became inseparable. They roamed daily the Sanctuary woods and trails, frolicked in the snow, ate meals and slept side-by-side. Indeed, the unique bond between these devoted friends was featured in a CBS newscast in 2009, entitled The Animal Odd Couple. The newscast spread quickly via You Tube and Facebook, and the story of Bella and Tarra warmed hearts around the globe.

Tragically, little Bella went missing last week and was found dead on Oct. 26 near the barn that served as home base for her and Tarra. Based on the evidence, it was determined that Bella had been attacked by coyotes. And it appears as though her devoted companion, Tarra, picked up Bella’s body, cradled it in her trunk and carried Bella from the place of the attack to a grassy spot near the barn. Tarra carried Bella over a mile and brought her best friend home.

Since Bella’s death, almost daily updates are posted on the Sanctuary’s website regarding Tarra’s response to the loss of her canine friend. Caregivers have posted their own remembrances of Bella, and a tribute page was added to the website for the public to post their condolences. The comments have flooded in from around the world.  

I’ve cried on and off for several days now over a dog I never met and an elephant’s final act of love for her fallen friend. And I’m not alone. The outpouring of grief on the social network sites and Bella's tribute page is strong testimony to how these two animals touched our hearts.

But perhaps we should not have been surprised by this pachyderm-canine bond. Unlikely duos are actually not uncommon. In a blog article about interspecies friendships, Julia Williams attributes these unique connections to the animals’ ability to trust enough to form a bond. She believes that humans think too much about differences. Animals, on the other hand, act from a basic desire for companionship.

As I read examples of interspecies friendships in Williams’ article, I concluded that trusting enough to form a bond is, in the end, a matter of survival. In other words, companionship yields a greater likelihood of survival.

As a human, I’m probably going to survive whether or not I get along with my next door neighbor. Not so true for a dog, deer, bird or any animal that requires care and feeding in early stages and mutual cooperation within a pack, herd or flock thereafter.

So when animals find themselves outside of their milieu, they adapt. When they are orphaned, abandoned, placed in zoo settings alongside other species, they change their rules in order to survive and thrive. And they do so in amazing ways, including forming some very unique friendships.

Tarra and Bella adapted and thrived. And they did so with love, grace and trust.

We can learn from their example of resilience. And from Tarra’s final act of love and loyalty.

In between tears, I have tried to understand the intensity of my response to the loss of Bella. Perhaps it stems from my own sense of guilt. As an animal lover, I am reminded that have not done enough to champion the cause of abandoned, mistreated and endangered creatures. And there is much to be done, locally and globally.

The founders and caregivers at The Elephant Sanctuary are doing the right thing. I thank them for their work, their love of the animals and for chronicling for us the happy lives of Tarra and Bella since 2003. Their story was wondrous, indeed.


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