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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Elephants’ Friend Wants Her Job Back

NASHVILLE (CN) - A founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee claims the sanctuary squeezed her out for objecting to illegal payments and its slow response to tuberculosis. Carol Buckley, whom Time magazine called a "Hero For The Planet" for her work at the refuge, says the sanctuary is still using her name and biography collect donations.

Buckley co-founded The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the nation's first and largest natural habitat refuge for endangered African and Asian elephants, in 1995. She did so with her own money, without reimbursement from the sanctuary, according to her complaint in Davidson County Chanvery Court.

Buckley says she sold the 2,700-acre refuge 2 years later to the sanctuary, at the request of its board of directors, for the same price she paid for it in 1995.

Buckley says the trouble began in 2007, when defendant board member Janice Zeitlin paid her own husband more than $60,000 to build a new education building - work that Buckley claims was offered and accepted pro bono.

After learning about the payment, Buckley says she warned of illegal self-dealing and closed the bank account Zeitlin used to write the check.

Despite her objections, Buckley says, Zeitlin also wrote a $20,000 check to "placate" a contractor and family friend working on the project.

Buckley says she was put on a 2-month leave in November 2009 for complaining about the board of directors' breach of fiduciary duty and its slow response to an elephant's positive tuberculosis test.

"Although the law required that this information be reported to The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, board member and Sanctuary human TB consultant Dr. Schaffner, who is head of infectious medicine at Vanderbilt University and a nationwide spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control, ordered her not to report it until all lab results were in," the complaint states. "Around the same time it was discovered that four caregivers tested positive for exposure to TB."

Buckley says the decision to put her on leave was presented to the board of directors as a "fait accompli, with no regard of the views of the other board members," because three members made up an illegal transition committee that represented the majority vote.

Buckley was fired on March 17 from her position as director, chief executive officer and president. Days later she told the local Channel 5 station: "This was unbelievable and shocking. I had no idea. I was broadsided. The sanctuary is home to me. It's a place I manufactured in my head, and we erected it."

Buckley acknowledged to Channel 5 that she was "hard on staff and the elephants always came first."

"Many of the staff were intimidated by me. That's true," Buckley told Channel 5.

Donors are a different story. Buckley says the sanctuary continues to use her reputation and fame to collect donations and "refused to return donations to those persons who requested this after learning they were mislead about Buckley's continued involvement with The Sanctuary."

While using her name and artwork to keep the money rolling in, Buckley says, Zeitlin and co-defendant Mary Baker badmouthed her to donors.

The complaint adds: "Zeitlin accused Buckley of failing to train staff, failing to inform staff of tuberculosis risk, being aggressive towards the elephants and 'letting things slide.' ... When asked by some of these donors about the circumstances of Buckley's replacement or termination, upon information and belief, at Baker's direction, [nonparty Scott] Blais falsely told them that Buckley had 'engaged in illegal practices,' while Mary Baker and office staff implied employee misconduct and encouraged them not to investigate further 'because it would really be damaging to Carol's (Buckley's) reputation if the truth came out.'" (Parentheses in complaint.)

Buckley says that Blais was "acting as agent for the Sanctuary."

Buckley claims Baker also backed out of a written agreement to let her visit Tarra, a 35-year-old Asian elephant she raised since the age of 1, who Buckley says is internationally known as the inspiration for the sanctuary.

Referring to the elephants, Buckley told local media: "I don't believe I could live if I don't see them again."

She accuses the sanctuary, Zeitlin and Baker of retaliatory discharge, violation of the Tennessee Personal Rights Protection Act, defamation, breach of contract and conversion.

She seeks reinstatement as president of the sanctuary, wants Zeitlin and Baker removed from the board, and $500,000 in punitive damages.

Her lead counsel is Kevin Sharp with Drescher and Sharp.

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