Osage Elementary School teacher shares love of elephants with students

Fourth grade teacher Colleen Rossi raises awareness of elephants who live at The Elephant Sanctuary, a retirement community for elephants.

Colleen Rossi’s fourth grade class, Lynn Gavin’s second grade class and Lynn Wynters first grade class pose for a group picture after learning about The Elephant Sanctuary.

You can see Colleen Rossi’s love for elephants before you walk into her classroom at Osage Elementary School. The fourth-grade teacher has elephant stickers with her students’ names all over the door.

Once you walk in, you see all kinds of elephants lined against the windows, from stuffed elephants to elephant souvenirs, all given by her students.

“I love, love, love elephants,” she proclaimed. “They are amazing creatures, almost magical.”

Rossi has shared her love for elephants to all her students since she became immersed in the animals approximately 20 years ago, when the Internet was still relatively new.

At the time, the Voorhees School District gave Rossi video conferencing equipment, which opened her and her students’ eyes to places they’ve never seen or heard of.

“I found all kinds of places to bring the world to my classroom through this special equipment,” she said.

Some of those places included museums, zoos and a place that’s grown close to her heart — The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. It is a retirement community for female Asian and African elephants that are retired from zoos and circuses. The sanctuary is home to only females because they outnumber males, and males have different needs and requirements for their care.

“The original founder of the sanctuary worked in a circus, and she felt her elephant that she trained, Tarra, it wasn’t the best environment,” Rossi said. “At the sanctuary, there’s no chains or restrictions. Elephants can walk in woods and walk wherever they want to within the space. They are free.”

Fourth grader Cammy Richter smiling ear to ear as she holds one of Colleen Rossi’s stuffed elephants.

Founded in 1995, the Elephant Sanctuary is more than 2,700 acres wide and is the country’s largest natural habitat refuge. It is home to 11 elephants, ranging in ages 32 to 68. There are strict rules — no visitors are allowed. The only interaction anyone can have with the animals is on the sanctuary’s website. It has 13 cameras set up throughout the space, and the sanctuary has a live video feed on its website.

“It’s really cool because since they have a live camera 24/7, my students can zoom in and see the elephants at anytime,” she said.

In addition to watching the elephants, Rossi educates her students on each elephant and their stories — why and how the animals came to the sanctuary. The sanctuary’s website lists all the elephants’ names, pictures, biographies and history.

“Some of the elephants were kidnapped from Asia and their mothers may have been killed by poachers,” Rossi explained. “Their stories are sad, but it gives students hope because these female elephants bond together like a family and they really do love each other. The sanctuary tries to educate people all over the world about elephants and their gentleness.”

On Monday, Rossi set up a virtual Distance Learning Field Trip with Todd Montgomery, education manager at the Elephant Sanctuary. Lynn Gavin’s second-grade class and Lynn Wynters first-grade class joined Rossi’s class, and Kelly Beck’s fifth-grade class and one of Kelly Wormann’s music classes joined online from their classrooms. Unfortunately, the students weren’t able to see any of the elephants during the live feed. Montgomery said the elephants were probably in the woods, where cameras are not set up. The students were disappointed, but Montgomery took numerous questions from them and explained more about the sanctuary.

A small portion of Colleen Rossi’s elephant collection.

He went into great detail about one of the elephants, Sissy, who’s been through a few traumatic situations. She was taken from Asia and shipped to the United States at a Six Flags in Texas before being shipped to a zoo. One of those years, it rained for several days straight, and the zoo flooded. Sissy’s zookeepers could not find her until halfway through the second day of the flood.

“They saw what they thought was a log sticking out of the water that looked suspicious,” Montgomery recalled. “They went to investigate and sure enough, it wasn’t a log. It was the top 10 inches of Sissy’s trunk out of the water. They realize what had happened was, as the water got higher and higher, Sissy probably got scared and wrapped her legs around the tree trunk. As the water got over her head, she raised her trunk above the water and used it like a snorkel. The very top of her trunk was the only part of her body that was above water and able to breathe, able to keep herself alive for a full day and half.”

After 30 years at the zoo, her zookeepers decided they wanted her to live at a bigger zoo and make an elephant friend. There were more elephants at this other zoo, but because she hadn’t seen another elephant in 30 years, she didn’t know how to get along with them.

Sissy was then sent to another zoo. The same thing happened and again, she was sent to another zoo. At the final zoo, the zookeepers mistreated her. The customers noticed the mistreatment and demanded Sissy leave the zoo. That’s how she ended up at the sanctuary.

Each student and teacher wore a #LoveElephants sticker for the day.

The students at Osage were taken aback by Sissy’s story. They love learning about the elephants, their stories and how the sanctuary brings the elephants peace.

“I really like the story about Sissy, how she was able to climb out of the water,” fourth grader Avi Ben-David said. “It’s very cool about the sanctuary because it’s a good place for elephants to finish out their lives that have been injured and were at the circus.”

“I think that the elephants are safe now because they are in a sanctuary and they know that nobody will harm them,” classmate Najia Commisso said. “I think it was a really great opportunity to hear him (Montgomery) talk about the elephants.”

The majority of the elephants in the sanctuary have similar stories, and Rossi said one of the reasons it’s important for her to teach her students about the elephants and the sanctuary is to raise awareness.

Fourth grader Judy Levy with her teacher, Colleen Rossi.

“I try to teach the kids that the theme of the sanctuary is a really peaceful place,” she said. “As human beings, we have to care. Unless we choose to save their environment, they will go extinct. They think a zoo is going to save a species, but as a human race, we have to choose to save the species, not just the zoo. I try to make a difference and educate my fourth-grade class, but it has to spread and be a more global effort.”

The sanctuary is a non-profit organization and relies on donations to provide the elephants with individualized care, food and raise public awareness of the needs of elephants in captivity. If you donate $50 or more, you can “adopt an elephant” and receive a certificate of adoption, a photo and biography detailing the story of your elephant and a subscription to the sanctuary’s newsletter, “Trunklines.” Rossi and her students recently started a new project through DonorsChoose.org to “adopt an elephant.” Their goal is to raise $394, and all donations are matched by corporate sponsors and are tax deductible. Click here to donate to their project.

To learn more about The Elephant Sanctuary, visit the website at www.elephants.com.