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Baby Tarra on roller skates

Baby Tarra on roller skates

Feb. 12, 1980: Trainer Carol Buckley working with 6-year-old Baby Tarra, a 3,000-pound elephant living in Ojai.

Times staff writer David Larsen reported the next morning:

Riddle: What has 16 wheels and a trunk?

Answer: An elephant on roller skates.

That is what they have these days in Ojai, where Carol Buckley has outfitted her 6-year-old pet pachyderm with custom-made skates and has taught her to use them.

Buckley, 25, has been involved in animal teaching since she was a teenager in Anaheim. Eventually after working with mountain lions in Montana, she was accepted for the animal training course at Moorpark College.

“One day in 1974, when I was at home doing my homework, I looked out the window and there was this Indian elephant being led down the street on a leash,” she recalled. “I think I was drunk.”

It turned out the creature was owned by a tire store dealer who was using it for promotional appearances. Buckley got permission to help care for what was then a baby elephant. This involved a bottle feeding of four gallons of milk every four hours around the clock.

She and the elephant became close friends and as the years went by, Baby Tarra, which is what she answers to, was trained to stand on her hind legs, to skip, to waltz. And Buckley purchased her from the tire man.

Last year, shortly after Buckley had moved into a parcel of Ojai zoned for elephants, the trainer was approached by a professional ice skater from Santa Barbara. He suggested teaching his skill to Baby Tarra, but her owner replied that the animal might fall and injure herself.

“But the more I thought about it the more I felt it would be safe for her to roller skate,” Buckley said. “There are no elephants in the world who can do that.”

The young lady’s first step was to trace the animal’s feet on cardboard and take the imprints to a local welder.

He fashioned four steel frames with rubber-coated wheels of the type that might be found on a piano dolly.

Her next stop was a shoemaker, who used two cowhides to create four huge boots on the frames. The weight of each full skate is 35 pounds.

“We had to experiment at first,” Buckley recalled. “We tried leather straps, but we couldn’t get them tight enough. We found, however, that automobile seat belts worked perfectly.”

So three months ago, on a concrete foundation slab outside Buckley’s house, the jungle native was introduced to the wonderful world of wheels on her front two feet.

“She immediately started trumpeting,” her owner said. “That is a sign of pleasure.”

In a few days the back two were added, and the 3,000-pound Baby Tarra found that she could move along with the greatest of ease.

“Basically she rolls on the front ones and kind of drags the back ones,” her owner explained. “But she is improving every day. We generally practice twice a week, and she can even go in reverse now.”

Already the word has gotten out, and Buckley said she has had offers to exhibit her skating elephant in Spain and Japan.

Such has been the success so far that the trainer reconsidered her earlier decision and has tried out the pachyderm on specially built ice skates.

“She balanced beautifully,” Buckley reported. “We might go ahead with that also at a rink in Santa Barbara.”

But for now it is skating.

As the elephant continues to grow for the next 14 years, the custom-made rigs will have to be replaced every six months. Each one costs about $500.

Definitely not a cheap skate.

These two photos by former staff photographer Steve Fontanini were published in the Feb. 13, 1980, Los Angeles Times.

Feb. 12, 1980: Custom roller skates on Baby Tarra, a 3,000-pound elephant living in Ojai. Credit: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

A follow-up story in the Sept. 20, 1980,¬†edition reported that Baby Tarra and Carol Buckley “were front page news in over 40 cities domestic, and 10 foreign.”

In 1994, Buckley co-founded the Elephant Sanctuary (Hohenward) in Tennessee, giving Tarra a permanent home.

This 2011 L.A. Unleashed blog post reported on Buckley and Tarra: Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary looks to make a fresh start after co-founder’s firing.

Link to The Elephant Sanctuary website.

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